California counties aren't spending available mental health funds, says state auditor

May 21, 2018

The Mental Health Services Act has long supplied the bulk of funding for California counties to prevent and treat mental illness among Medi-Cal patients. But some counties aren’t using the money. San Luis Obispo County had a $14.7 million fund balance at the end of the 2015-2016 fiscal year. 

An item in Governor Jerry Brown’s latest budget would pay for extra state staff to oversee the way counties spend their Mental Health Services Act dollars. It comes after a February state audit showing counties had amassed $2.5 billion in unspent funds.

The auditor says the state Department of Health Care Services didn’t provide proper oversight and guidance. They also failed to recover leftover funds that under state law must be reallocated to other mental health agencies.

“Some counties weren’t spending these dollars because frankly they should have come back to the state. So there was confusion about whether they could legally spend these dollars,” said Adrienne Shilton,  government affairs director for the Steinberg Institute, a nonprofit mental health policy group.

The institute supported a successful bill last year that extended how long counties have to make a spending plan for the dollars before they revert. They’re supporting a senate bill this year that would require counties to spend the funds specifically on early psychosis programs, mental health outreach for young adults, and childhood trauma prevention.

“To establish what we think is a more strategic framework for how we can tackle a crisis in our state, which is the homeless population, the suicide rates we aren’t making a dent in,” Shilton said.   

A different bill in the Assembly seeks to allocate unspent MHSA dollars - which currently go to the state - to cities, school districts or other public entities providing mental health services.