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County mental health funds increase as other departments face cuts

on January 13, 2010

During Tuesday’s Board of Supervisors Meeting, Alameda County Supervisor Keith Carson said the $8.9 billion in budget cuts Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger proposed Friday are “the first shot over the bow of the ship for the budget in the coming year.” But while the Board of Supervisors were preparing for cutbacks, their most spirited debate focused on a department that actually has more money this year—the Health Care Services Agency.

As part of California’s Mental Health Services Act, Alameda County has received $140 million in new funding for prevention, early intervention and service needs in the field of mental health. Funds may also contribute to necessary improvements in mental health facilities, technology and training. The Mental Health Services Act dates to 2004, when California voters approved Proposition 63, a 1 percent tax on personal income above $1 million for mental health funding.

A motion to use Mental Health Services money to create 25 new positions in Alameda County’s Health Care Services Agency was the most contentious agenda item at Tuesday’s board meeting. Supervisor Scott Haggerty said it felt “schizophrenic” to hire 25 people while considering layoffs in other departments. He asked Alex Briscoe, the agency’s acting director, to guarantee that all 25 new positions would be filled by internal hires, but Briscoe would not do so. Four of the positions require professional certifications, and Briscoe said that county employees facing layoffs might not have the skill set necessary to fill a social worker or psychologist position.

At the beginning of the discussion, both Supervisors Carson and Haggerty said they would vote against the 25 positions. “This is pointing out a problem in which the state tries to fund programs that we have,” Haggerty said.

Briscoe said that 18 of the proposed positions are necessary to speed up the agency contract process. These are finance positions that could likely be filled from within the county.

Haggerty said this staffing move did not get to the root of improving mental health, but Briscoe responded that creating these positions represents only $2.5 million of the  $140 million coming to Health Care Services through the Mental Health Services Act. He said the vast majority of the money has gone toward field service and support.

The board ultimately approved the motion unanimously, with the requirement that the Health Care Services Agency only hire internally. “Any hiring from outside the county needs to come back to the board for approval and justification,” Haggerty said.

Supervisor Nate Miley hugs Marcie Hodge, sister of the late Jason Terry Hodge.

Supervisor Nate Miley hugs Marcie Hodge, sister of Jason Terry Hodge who died Dec. 6.

In other business, Supervisor Nate Miley read a proclamation honoring youth and education advocate Jason Terry Hodge, who died in December at age 34. In 1995, a 21-year-old Hodge became the youngest school board member in the history of the Oakland Unified School District. “His passing was a shock,” Miley said.

Hodge’s sister Marcie Hodge was at the meeting to receive the honor. She said in the last year of his life, her brother ran a group home for boys. “He talked about kids needing a stable environment,” Marcie Hodge said. The family created a scholarship fund for Hodge’s alma mater, Skyline High School, and contributions can be sent to the Jason Hodge Scholarship Fund at PO Box 5100 Oakland, 94605.

The board also acknowledged “the state of emergency relative to transmission of HIV and other blood-borne pathogens through contaminated needles.”  Oakland resident Darnell Levingston said the county should fund education and prevention programs to address the problem.

“When it became a ‘black folks’ problem the funds seemed to dry up,” Levingston said. Supervisor Carson acknowledged Levingston’s concern and said his staff is organizing a meeting of people involved with the issue. “I know you’ve been there every step of the way,” Carson said when he asked Levingston to participate in the meeting.

Alameda County Public Health Officer Dr. Muntu Davis also presented the latest information on the H1N1 pandemic. According to Davis, H1N1 continues to be the predominant circulating virus in Alameda County. So far 490 people have been hospitalized and 28 have died. Alameda County distributed 425,000 doses of the vaccine through health care providers. Public Health also plans further vaccine distribution through local pharmacies. “We are second only to L.A. for distribution in California,” Davis said.

Lead image: Alameda County Board of Supervisors debate new Health Care Services positions.

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