Officials and leaders in the mental health industry are pleased with Gov. Kathy Hochul's proposed investments in the sector, but warn those investments must be made in the proper areas to have their desired impact.

Hochul included a historic $1.1 billion for mental health programs in her executive budget proposal released Feb. 1, with millions of dollars proposed to develop new housing, expanding psychiatric treatment and expanding mental health services in schools.

But mental hygiene officials testified to lawmakers at a legislative budget hearing Thursday that funding must be directed at the workforce before programs can be expanded successfully.

The state's mental health workforce will get a 2.5% cost-of-living adjustment pay increase as proposed in the governor's budget. Officials and lawmakers agreed Thursday 2.5% will not attract or retain staff after a 5.4% increase in last year's budget and historic levels of inflation.

They say the adjustment should be an 8.5% increase backed by $500 million to compete with the rising cost of groceries and utilities.

"The 2.5 was absolutely an insult," Assembly Mental Health Committee chair Aileen Gunther said, adding, "8.5 is what we need."

State leaders in the Office of Mental Health, Office of Addiction Services and Supports and the state Office for People With Developmental Disabilities argued significant increases in clinic rates, inpatient hospital beds and others should help providers increase salaries. 

Workers often say the pay hikes legislated in the budget are often not reflected in their paychecks. 

Agencies are working to find out how providers are using those dollars, but lack enforcement outside a worker filing a complaint of wage theft with the state Department of Labor.

"We understand that there are multiple ways that providers need to use those dollars to cover operational costs and staff wages, and so our attestation is trying to ascertain how those funds are being used," said Kerri Neifeld, commissioner of the state Office for People with Developmental Disabilities.

The agencies have contracts with SUNY schools to try and create a pipeline to recruit young people to the beleaguered workforce. 

Senate Mental Health Committee chair Sen. Samra Brouk, a Rochester Democrat, sponsors legislation to tie the annual cost of living adjustments for the state's mental health workforce to inflation, similar to the proposal supported by Hochul and the Legislature to tie the minimum wage to inflation in the upcoming budget.

Hochul's budget includes $30 million to increase inpatient beds for psychiatric treatment as facilities statewide have long wait lists for care. That includes reopening 150 beds in state facilities that closed during the pandemic, and continuing to reopen 850 beds in community facilities included in last year's budget.

"Some of the stakeholder meetings that we're having is to get information from all the communities as to where they should reopen," said Dr. Ann Marie Sullivan, state Office of Mental Health commissioner.

Sen. Gustavo Rivera, who chairs the Health Committee, asked Office of Addiction Services and Supports Commissioner Dr. Chinazo Cunningham about expanding supervised injection sites, or overdose prevention centers, in the state.

Cunningham said overdose prevention centers violate state and federal laws regulations related to maintaining drugs and controlled substances, but could not provide details on which rules make the centers problematic to receive public funding. 

"We've been asking the same question... many times, and we're always told that we will be given more specifics," Rivera replied, adding department officials have never provided the requested information.

The state Office of Addiction Services and Supports rejected late last year a recommendation from the Opioid Settlement Fund Advisory Board to use a portion of the state's share of more than a billion dollars in opioid settlement funds to create more overdose prevention centers. Two such sites exist in New York City, but are privately owned and operated.

Mental health and substance use professionals working in local communities agreed Thursday the $1.1 billion in the executive budget is the best proposal to support New Yorkers' mental hygiene in decades, but the money won't help the crisis without staff to provide the care.

"Great budget, best I've seen in my 20 years here," Mental Health Association of NYS CEO Glenn Liebman told lawmakers just as the three-minute timer ran out during the hearing. "But if we don't have the workforce to take care of all the work that's got to be done here, then..." 

CORRECTION: State agencies have contracted with State University of New York campuses to recruit people to the mental health workforce. This story corrects an earlier version that the state also has an agreement with Georgetown University.