Texas mayors asks state lawmakers for more mental health money

A letter urges Texas legislators to give salary increases to community mental health workers.


Lucio Vasquez / Houston Public Media
Mayor Sylvester Turner announced sweeping new police reforms at a City Hall press conference on April 29, 2021.

Texas mayors, including Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner sent a letter to the Senate Finance Committee on Friday, requesting over $155 million of budget surplus funds to be sent to the 39 Local Mental and Behavioral Health Authorities over the next two fiscal years. These are public mental health care systems that provide emergency, out-patient and rehab services to low-income and uninsured patients across Texas.

The Committee is holding a public hearing today to discuss the health section of the appropriations bill that was filed last month.

"This session, right now, is the time for transformational investment," Turner said in a statement. "This base budget is a good start, but we need more resources for our community based services. Let's continue to work together to invest appropriately in mental healthcare."

These community mental health centers, like most of the health care sector, have been facing the strain of staffing shortages exacerbated by the pandemic.

72 percent are facing high staff turnover, according to the Texas Council of Community Centers. These shortages ultimately trickle down to patients seeking care — with almost half of these centers reporting that they have either reduced capacity, discontinued services or made plans to do so because of staffing challenges.

"As the elected leadership for local governments, we know firsthand how (lack of access to services) leaves our local police departments as a primary safety net mental health provider for too many Texans," the letter reads. "People living with mental health conditions need access to mental health services, and our police need to be able to better focus on public safety."

The money requested by these mayors would largely go toward salary increases that other state health workers have already been promised. In January, the Texas Health and Human Services Commission announced pay bumps for nearly 20,000 employees who work at state psychiatric hospitals and living centers for people with intellectual or developmental disabilities.

Wayne Young, the CEO of the Harris Center where the vacancy rate is around 8-10 percent, sees higher pay as a key recruitment and retainment strategy.

"A lot of times that barrier is compensation," Young said. "The work we do is not always easy work. We serve a client population with very significant needs. They have very complex cases. When you’re not paying competitive wages, it becomes challenging to recruit people in."

The hardest to fill positions have been licensed professional counselors and social workers who have master's degrees — some staying open for 6 months. There's new competition from telehealth companies that offer remote work and other health care organizations offering up other incentives.

Young said positions that require less education have also been challenging to fill and would benefit from salary increases.

"When I walk into Bucee's and I see the hourly rates they pay, I think ‘oh my goodness, that’s who I’m competing with?'" said Young. "I feel like we have very rewarding jobs and people do it because they care about the individuals we serve, but it's a stark reality when you see what people get paid to work in retail and convenience stores."

The letter also applauded SB 1 for increased spending in certain mental health related programs, such as the 988 crisis hotline and loan repayment for future mental health professionals.

The missing piece is the ability to staff up to meet the needs now, Young added.

"Even if you give me all the resources in the world, if I can’t find the workforce to execute and deliver the programs and services, then I can’t impact my community in the way that we’re charged to," Young said.