Legislative panel endorses $30M in federal funds for mental health, substance abuse services

Sen. Jimmy Hickey, R-Texarkana, asks a question during the Performance Evaluation and Expenditure Review (PEER) Subcommittee of the Arkansas Legislative Council meeting on Tuesday, Feb. 13, 2024, at the state Capitol in Little Rock.
(Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Thomas Metthe)
Sen. Jimmy Hickey, R-Texarkana, asks a question during the Performance Evaluation and Expenditure Review (PEER) Subcommittee of the Arkansas Legislative Council meeting on Tuesday, Feb. 13, 2024, at the state Capitol in Little Rock. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Thomas Metthe)


An Arkansas legislative panel on Tuesday endorsed the state Department of Human Services' request for $30 million in federal American Rescue Plan funds to help fill gaps in mental health and substance abuse services across the state.

The Legislative Council's Performance Evaluation and Expenditure Review Subcommittee also recommended the Legislative Council approve the state Department of Finance and Administration's requests for $16.8 million in federal American Rescue Plan funds for the University of Arkansas at Monticello's Forest Health Research Center, $12 million for Mercy Fort Smith, $7 million for CARTI in El Dorado, and $6 million in nursing program support for three private colleges.

The Legislative Council will consider these requests during its meeting Friday.

In March 2021, President Joe Biden signed the $1.9 trillion federal American Rescue Plan Act that is designed to help the United States recover from the economic and health effects of the covid-19 pandemic.

Arkansas was awarded $1.57 billion in American Rescue Plan state fiscal recovery funds. If the Legislative Council approves these five requests totaling $71.8 million in American Rescue Plan funds Friday, the amount available for allocation will be $250.2 million, state Department of Finance and Administration spokesman Scott Hardin said after the Performance Evaluation and Expenditure Review Subcommittee meeting.

Referring to the state Department of Human Service's request for $30 million in American Rescue Plan funds for mental health and substance abuse services, state Rep. DeAnn Vaught, R-Horatio, said "we have been asking for this money for at least five years.

"It's so nice that we are finally going to be able to move forward," she said. "This is just the tip of the iceberg, but I am grateful for everything that you have done."

Afterward, Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders said the state Department of Human Service's request represents a comprehensive plan to invest $30 million in American Rescue Plan funds to improve mental health and substance abuse services across the state through a variety of initiatives, including a statewide coordinated crisis response system.

The Republican governor said she approved the multifaceted plan earlier this month, and she appreciates lawmakers consideration and support of this request.

"The mental health and substance abuse crises in this country are layered. If we're going to tackle them, our efforts will have to be layered too," Sanders said. "This will help us fill the gaps in our current efforts and ensure struggling Arkansans get the help they need."

According to the governor's office, the statewide crisis response system will include a 24-hour call center that will allow first responders to use tablets to connect individuals in crisis with clinicians, creation of mobile crisis teams, new training for EMTs, police, and other first-responders on telehealth and patient evaluation; and software that will better connect health care and emergency response entities around the state.

Additionally, the plan includes funding to support several key service initiatives that fill existing service gaps and improve quality for children and at-risk populations, according to the governor's office. These new resources provide better community-based services and support for individuals who would otherwise be sent to high-cost settings not necessarily best to meet their specific needs.

According to the governor's office, the plan includes creation or enhancement of:

— Therapeutic community beds for adults with co-occurring mental illness and intellectual/developmental disabilities

— Community reintegration programs for children.

— Youth substance abuse residential treatment program.

— Adult substance abuse residential treatment programs.

— Supportive housing for adults with mental illness to help prevent homelessness, incarceration and institutionalization.

— Supportive housing to prevent homelessness, incarceration, and institutionalization for youth and young adults leaving state custody from foster care or the juvenile justice system.

The state Department of Finance and Administration said its request for $16.8 million in American Rescue Plan funds would allow the University of Arkansas at Monticello to build a new Arkansas Forest Health Research Center within its College of Forestry, Agriculture and Natural Resources,

The finance department said the center will consist of laboratories capable of species identification of diseases and insects, and will be capable of using leading-edge technologies for sensing changes in forest conditions through satellites and drones, analyzing spread patterns and causal factors through geospatial analyses and artificial intelligence, and breeding of disease-resistant tree genotypes. The center also will support the workforce in south Arkansas and rural areas, in addition to providing necessary support to Arkansas' forest industry, the finance department said.

The finance department said its request for $12 million in American Rescue Plan funds for Mercy Fort Smith is to secure funding to help pay for the construction of a state-of-the-art cancer center as part of Mercy Fort Smith's expansion project in the River Valley. The cancer center is projected to cost about $100 million, with Mercy committing $70 million and the Cherokee Nation providing a $8 million gift to the project, the Mercy Health Foundation said in its request for funding.

The finance department said its request for $7 million in American Rescue Plan funds to grant to CARTI will allow more access to cancer care services in south Arkansas communities. In its request for the funding, CARTI said it invested the initial $12 million in Phase 1 of a new cancer center in El Dorado, and the total project cost is $19 million and "we are working to complete this vision with Phase II."

The finance department said its request for $6 million in American Rescue Plan funds would provide $2 million each to Harding University, John Brown University, and Ouachita Baptist University to support equipment purchases, facility expansion and other program support. The funds are aimed at helping the colleges increase their Bachelor of Science in Nursing program enrollment by 25% to help address Arkansas' nursing shortage.

Sen. Linda Chesterfield, D-Little Rock, said she previously advocated for American Rescue Plan funding for Philander Smith College School of Allied and Public School Health, and she was advised one of the reasons the school's request couldn't be funded "was because it was more General Improvement Fund."

Sen. Jonathan Dismang, R-Searcy, recalled that previous request for American Rescue Plan funds.

"As far as the conversation that we were having before there was not detailed plans for how those institutions were going to utilize the money, and I think that's what we were talking about in reference to the old General Improvement Fund program -- not that one exists today," Dismang said.

Chesterfield said she doesn't oppose the requests for American Rescue Plan funds considered Tuesday, but she said she doesn't want to have one set of rules for some schools and another set for rules other schools.

RESTRICTED RESERVE FUNDS

In other action, the Performance Evaluation and Expenditure Review Subcommittee recommended the Legislative Council approve the following requests for state-restricted reserve funds:

— The state Department of Human Services' request for $8 million to pay for the construction of Phase 1 and a portion of Phase II of the master plan at the Jonesboro Human Development Center.

— The Arkansas Game and Fish Commission's request for $6.5 million to accelerate several projects and maximize federal funding.

Of these funds, $2 million will be used for the Glaise Creek Green Tree Reservoir restoration project, commission Director Austin Booth said in a letter to Department of Finance and Administration Secretary Jim Hudson. The project has been the commission's first Green Tree Reservoir restoration project and is scheduled to be completed at the end of fiscal year 2024 or the beginning of fiscal year 2025, Booth said.

He said $2 million of the funds will be used for the Centerton Hatchery to increase capacity at the hatchery while reducing "our toll on the watershed." The commission will leverage this funding with federal Community Directed Federal Funds to complete the project, he said.

Booth said $1.5 million of the funds will be used for Lake Conway to accelerate boat lane work to the summer of 2024 and aim for earlier project completion, and $1 million will be used for Lake Wilhelmina renovations. Lake Wilhelmina is a legacy fishery in an underserved portion of the state.

— The state Department of Transformation and Shared Services' request for $4.2 million to help hire the consultant McKinsey & Co. to conduct efficiency reviews for organizational strategic alignment, personnel, procurement, real estate, vehicle fleet management and information technology.

— The Department of Public Safety's request for $200,000 to allow the Commission on Law Enforcement Standards and Training to provide Advanced Law Enforcement Rapid Response Training to law enforcement employees around the state. The funding provides for necessary equipment and program training costs, said the department's Chief Fiscal Officer Karen Perry in a letter to Hudson.

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