Change is always challenging, but these aren't the worst of times for behavioral health care in Illinois, according to experts who spoke Tuesday to members of the Northwest suburbs' business community.
Despite many mental health agencies facing cuts in state funding, changes created by the Affordable Care Act are creating new opportunities for those who work in the field and those who need help, panelists said during the Schaumburg Business Association's monthly breakfast meeting.
Bob Zima, a licensed clinical counselor, said one of the chief benefits of the Affordable Care Act is that it places behavioral health "at the adult table" with physical health as part of a more holistic approach.
This could reduce the cost and duration of behavioral health treatment, improve its quality, spur treatment innovation and draw more qualified professionals to the field, Zima said.
Community mental health centers will not only survive but also thrive by learning the new lay of the land, he added.
"The money is there. How you get it has changed," Zima said. "Behavioral health care has never been more accessible in Illinois. More people have a means of paying for care."
But the work of organizations whose programs are partly funded by the state is not necessarily easier.
Gregg Stockey, executive director of The Bridge Youth & Family Services, said the operations of a nonprofit are often similar to those of a for-profit business except in one major respect: "The more customers we have, the less money we have."
His organization serves largely low-income families in the Northwest suburbs, providing services in three categories -- counseling for children, crisis intervention for runaways and mentoring programs.
Stockey considers the organization part of the social safety net, but after a significant reduction in state funding, it has had to grow its fundraising efforts up to a third of its total budget. He believes the work done by organizations like The Bridge saves society money in the long run.
Stockey pointed out that a third of all the public money spent on psychiatric care for children and teens in the U.S. is spent in Illinois. This is because most other states have a more robust outpatient system for kids, he said.
"My conclusion is that disinvestment or dismantling the network of human service organizations can only add to this cost disparity," he added.
Kristin Vana, manager of the Hanover Township Mental Health Board, spoke of the challenges and responsibilities of "708" boards such as hers. Authorized and funded through local referendums, 708 boards provide financial assistance for mental health, substance abuse and developmental disability programs in their communities.
In Hanover Township, about $800,000 in grants are awarded annually, with 50 percent going to mental health services, 34 percent to substance abuse programs and 16 percent to developmental disability programs. But organizations can apply for up to $25,000 in emergency grants if, like this year, state budget delays are causing shortfalls in their own budgets, Vana said.
Zima said the point of all mental health care is to get people back on track in their lives as quickly as possible. He believes the changes he's seeing through the Affordable Care Act will allow people to do so even more rapidly than before.
"When the day comes that people no longer need behavioral health care, I'll gladly drive a cab and talk to people that way," Zima said.