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NY can do more to save kids' lives

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New York’s kids are taking their lives in record numbers and unless officials intervene — especially those in Albany — things could get worse.

According to the most recent data available through the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services:

  • Suicide attempts among adolescents nationwide have risen sharply in the last decade, and suicide is now the second-leading cause of death among New Yorkers 15 to 19 years old.
  • Seventeen percent of high school students report that they’ve seriously considered a suicide attempt in the last year.
  • About a third of high school students report feeling sad or hopeless almost daily for two weeks in a row, and nearly 1 in 3 adolescents will meet criteria for an anxiety disorder by the age of 18.

Meanwhile, families struggle to access adequate mental health care for their children. Underfunded community mental health providers often have long waiting lists, and insurance companies often routinely deny coverage and adequate reimbursement for conditions that occur above the neck.

That’s why more than half of New York’s children with a behavioral health condition don’t get the treatment or the counseling they need. That leads to budget-busting psychiatric hospitalizations; life-changing arrests and foster-care placements; chaos in schools, homes and communities; and habit-forming self-medication with alcohol, marijuana and other drugs. In short, a full-blown children’s mental health crisis and lives lost.

New York has mounted an impressive response to our state’s opioid crisis, and new mental health resources like the Diagnostic, Assessment and Stabilization Hub in Hauppauge make a difference. But on Jan. 1 the state took a step that will further reduce access to children’s behavioral health services. New York has reduced reimbursement rates for Medicaid-eligible children and families who receive critical help though the Children and Family Treatment and Support Services program.

Launched at the beginning of 2019, the program is part of a set of Medicaid reforms designed to increase access to critical care, including crisis intervention, family peer support, community psychiatric supports and treatment, and substance use treatment. With enhanced reimbursements to fund the new program, nonprofit organizations have been able to better serve desperate families and turn a modest state investment into big Medicaid savings for New York.

Sadly, the program served just 7,900 children statewide in 2019, less than 5% of the 200,000 New York State says are eligible, and only an estimated 1,000 of those children are new to receiving services. That’s because program startup and accessibility have been spotty due to state Medicaid changes that have thrown children’s mental health services into turmoil. Some small cash-strapped organizations have successfully adapted and kept their doors open even as more families in need come knocking.

Others have been forced to stop offering some services, and more could be forced to follow suit because the state now has taken away enhanced reimbursements that actually barely cover program costs. New York can save lives by restoring enhanced reimbursement rates for the Children and Family Treatment and Support Services program. Eliminating cuts to these services for children until our kids are healthy means they can start to plan their own futures, rather than their own deaths.

Jeffrey L. Reynolds is president/chief executive of Family & Children’s Association and a board member of the New York State Council for Community Behavioral Healthcare.