Mental health providers facing insecurity about the future of state funding are poised to get an infusion of cash from the city of San Antonio’s federal pandemic relief.

A plan approved by City Council on Thursday will allow organizations to apply for grants worth a minimum of $100,000 for programs focused on providing mental health services to people with or without health insurance. The city allocated $23 million for the grants, plus another $3 million for administration costs.

The move comes as Gov. Greg Abbott redirected roughly $210 million from the state agency that oversees mental health programs to fund border security efforts known as Operation Lone Star. Though the state now faces a budget surplus that could more than make up for that money, mental health providers in the state say they’re already preparing for the possibility of major cuts.

“The state has been irresponsible in cutting funding for mental health and not simply expanding Medicaid. … Now the burden is on us as a city,” said Councilwoman Melissa Cabello Havrda (D6), who chairs the Public Safety Committee that oversaw creation of the city’s plan.

“It’s not nearly enough [money] for the impact that we need to make on mental health in our city, especially over the last few years, but it’s a good start,” she said.

Council voted unanimously in support of the plan, which is funded by a portion of the city’s American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) money. Bexar County Commissioners Court also directed more than $30 million of its ARPA grants towards local mental health services in June.

The majority of money the city approved Thursday, $15 million, will be spent on mental health initiatives for people ages 12-19. A portion of the funds will go toward teen violence intervention programs, as well as free and low-cost diagnostic services.

Roughly $5 million will go toward efforts to help older adults, such as extending hours at senior centers for social interaction programs and implementing coaching programs for caregivers. Another $5 million will go toward mental health services like substance abuse programs for homeless people.

“One of the silver linings [of the pandemic] is that we’re all talking about mental health,” said Havrda, who is a disabilities lawyer.

Texas ranks last in the country in terms of the per capita dollars it makes available for mental health and substance abuse treatment. It also leads the nation in prevalence of uninsured adults with mental illness at 21.5%, according to the nonprofit Mental Health America.

Much of the state’s mental health services are administered through local mental health authorities like San Antonio’s Center for Health Care Services (CHCS), which receives funding from the state’s Health and Human Services Commission.

CHCS estimates roughly 400,000 Bexar County residents currently have a mental health or substance abuse disorder, and offers treatment to patients regardless of their ability to pay.

It’s among the organizations planning to apply for the city’s grants while the future of its funding from the state remains unclear. Potential cuts haven’t hit day-to-day operations because Texas is in the second year of its biennial funding cycle, said CHCS President and CEO Jelynne LeBlanc Jamison.

“But we’ve been put on notice, if you will, going forward, what this next budget may look like,” she said.

Jamison said CHCS would use the city’s grant money for programs focused offering preventative services for people experiencing mental health and substance abuse issues.

“We’ve done a great job over the past five or six years refining the system of care and access for individuals who are experiencing a crisis,” said Jamison, who pointed to partnerships with the city’s law enforcement to help officers dealing with people experiencing a mental health crisis.

“Now it’s time for us to turn our attention to the pre-crisis system of care, which is currently nonexistent,” said Jamison.

The grant money comes from one-time federal pandemic relief funds, but Havrda said successful programs could be integrated into the city budget in the future.

Jamison said her organization is closely monitoring opportunities for grants from the federal government, which has made addressing mental health a priority. While some grants will allow the organization to apply for funding directly, others provide money to the state to administer as it sees fit.

“It’s just difficult when you work with a state Senate and state Legislature that doesn’t share the same political ideology as helping the most vulnerable citizens in this state,” Jamison said.

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Andrea Drusch

Andrea Drusch writes about local government for the San Antonio Report. She's covered politics in Washington, D.C., and Texas for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, National Journal and Politico.