State mental health providers and those who treat substance use disorders have their sights set on a 3.2% pay increase for staff in the next budget as leaders in the state Budget Division started meetings Monday to shape next year's spending plan. 

Community behavioral health agencies want a 3.2% cost-of-living adjustment increase in next year's budget, saying decades of disinvestment in the workforce forces staff to decline amid higher demand for services and worker vacancies. 

It's an ask based on the Consumer Price Index, said Glenn Liebman, CEO of the Mental Health Association of New York State.

"It's not aspirational," Liebman said. "It's the need that's out there — it's not like we're just pulling numbers out of the air."

Providers and advocates have started petitioning Gov. Kathy Hochul, making visits to the state Capitol and sending letters in the last week to get in front of the coming tidal wave of requests to influence what the governor includes in her executive budget. 

"You're dealing with people with complex needs and you're on the frontlines every day," Liebman said.

Mental health advocates also want an additional $500 million the Legislature didn't invest in behavioral health over the last 15 years to keep up with the cost of living. 

Liebman says the money could build services to help homeless New Yorkers and prevent overdose and suicide deaths — all on the rise since the pandemic.

"Just imagine how much different life would be if $500 million was added to the behavioral human health system," he added. "How many less people would be incarcerated, how many less people would be homeless? How many people would be alive because they would not have died by overdose or suicide? ...People would be living much more productive lives."

Administrators at Northern Rivers Family Services, a behavioral health provider in Albany, said during a visit to the Capitol last week the low pay forces 25% of the facility's workforce to have a second job, and 5% work three jobs. 

Willie Leak, director of residential services at Northern Rivers Family Services, says state funding for higher pay is critical as more New York youth rely on mental health and addiction support services.

"They come in with additional needs you couldn't even imagine, and we find ourselves with a workforce that is overtired, overworked," he said.

Senate Mental Health Committee chair Samra Brouk says the state must continue its historic $1.1 billion made in the last budget as New York continues to grapple with a mental health crisis.

"When we think about this human infrastructure and the individuals, we need in these positions. There's no better investment than actually making sure that these are people who know they can count on a livable wage every year," Brouk said Monday.

The $1.1 billion investment is intended to improve behavioral and mental health services in the state over five years. Budget officials Monday said the multi-year plan is centered on capital funding, or for building projects to expand mental health housing, outpatient services and other investments that will take years to materialize.

In the meantime, the senator sponsors legislation to permanently tie the Cost of Living Adjustment increase for behavioral health workers to inflation, and wants it included in the governor's budget. If it isn't, she and advocates say they'll push for the Legislature to include it in the final spending plan and end the annual battle for wages to keep up with inflation.

"It should be no surprise that every year we ask for an increase," Brouk said. "Life gets more expensive, it gets more competitive. And coming out of a global pandemic, we are still seeing the rippling effects of a mental health crisis, especially for our youth."

Otherwise, providers and workers like Leak worry New Yorkers won't have access to care they increasingly need.

"I hate to imagine the day that we wake up and we don't have staff to take care of these kids, because that's a real, real place we can end up in," he said.

The FY 2023-24 $229 billion budget passed in May included a 4% COLA increase for mental health workers — less than half the 8.5% hike they fought for all year. Hochul originally proposed an increase of 2.5%.