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Vice President Biden Announces $100 Million for Mental Health Services — or Did He?

The White House just published this breathless news release announcing $100 Million for Mental Health Services. As soon as I spotted this, I tweeted it, even though I knew immediately that the announcement was not as it seems.

Unlike virtually every other press release you’ve ever seen, this one curiously lacks a contact phone number, email address or even name—apart from Vice President Biden, who probably won’t be returning your voicemails. Short of calling the White House and asking to speak to Uncle Joe, there’s no easy way to get more information about grant availability for new mental health services.

The announcement has two parts: $50 million for “mental health services at Community Health Centers” from DHHS and $50 million to “improve mental health facilities” in rural areas from the Department of Agriculture. But no information on actual RFPs or even program names are included.

What gives?

With respect to the “new” funding for Community Health Centers (CHCs), which are nonprofit providers largely funded by HRSA, the $50 million does not appear to be new at all. Rather, it was apparently authorized by the Affordable Care Act (ACA) three years ago. From time to time, HRSA issues RFPs for CHCs to expand services, including mental health services (think of the New Access Points program, which we wrote about at the link). The ACA, in addition to being a landmark piece of legislation, was also a vehicle for creating budget authority—including this $50 million. At some point in FY ’14, HRSA will probably issue an RFP for CHCs to propose new mental health services programs, but this is not new funding.

Regarding the second pot of money, it may seem odd that the Department of Agriculture has $50 million for mental health facilities—but not to me. The Department of Agriculture has had the Rural Development (RD) office for decades, which, among other things, provides grants and loans for all kinds of rural community facilities—including mental health facilities.

Although not stated in the news release, I assume this $50 million is just part of RD’s existing funding appropriation, not new funding. The challenge RD faces, however, is finding projects to fund. This is because the real problem in rural areas is not building the facility—it’s operating the facility. So Steele County in Minnesota could apply for an RD grant and/or loan (most RD projects are offered a combination of both) to build a mental health center in Owatonna, but how would they staff it over time? By definition, rural areas are sparsely populated, the tax base is thin, and most counties and cities have trouble keeping open the facilities they have.

I’m sorry to have given readers the above bad news about phantom funding. While I’m glad that Vice President Biden decided to issue a press release saying that the sun rises in the east, in the world of grant writing, what really matters are RFPs.

If there is no link to a RFP or information about when one will be released, there really is no news. In this case no news is not good news.

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