Appropriations Committee
February 24, 2022
Presented By: Kathleen Callahan, MSW

Dear Honorable Chairpersons Osten and Walker, Ranking Members Miner and France, Vice Chairs Hartley, Dathan, and Nolan, and all other distinguished Members of the Appropriations Committee of the Connecticut General Assembly:

My name is Kathleen Callahan, a resident of Stratford, and the chair of the National Association of Social Workers Connecticut Chapter’s Education and Legislative Action Network (NASW/CT ELAN). I am testifying on behalf of the chapter which represents over 2,300 members regarding the Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services in the proposed budget, HB-5037: An Act Adjusting the State Budget for the Biennium Ending June 30, 2023.

NASW/CT believes that every Connecticut resident has the right to accessible, comprehensive health care. Our 2022 legislative agenda specifically promotes actions that promote culturally responsive practices in all aspects of community life, including mental health and addiction services, and addresses the tsunami of behavioral health needs brought on by COVID-19. We call on the committee to expand the health care infrastructure that our communities need now and will need long after federal relief funds expire.

Mobile Crisis Services

We were happy to see that the governor’s proposed budget prioritizes mental health, dedicating ARP funds to enhancing mobile crisis services. There is a very real need for them to be appropriately staffed and available 24/7. Mental health crises do not happen only on “first shifts” and law enforcement too often are left to respond to mental health related calls for which they are not trained. We urge the committee to increase DMHAS funding to prepare for the expiration of federal funding and build the foundation for these enhanced and expanded services.

These services will be important as the state rolls out 988: the new, nationwide, 3-digit, Lifeline phone number for those in crisis to connect with suicide prevention and mental health crisis counselors. NASW/CT supports legislation that specifically promotes alternatives to arrest and incarceration and with 988 capturing both 211 and 911 calls, this provides easy access for law enforcement and if indicated, connection to treatment instead of arrest and potential introduction to the criminal system.

NASW National recently called for deployment of social workers to improve crisis response capacity[1] as we are skilled in the necessary risk assessment and intervention, referral, safety planning and follow-up. We recommend the hiring and utilization of social workers for an integrated response to certain 988 calls and ensuring broad language access to these services.

Increase Funding for Nonprofits

Many social workers are employed by community nonprofits which are chronically underfunded and dealing with their worst workforce shortage at the worst possible time. The vital services provided by nonprofits are threatened as our communities continue to deal with the impact of the pandemic. According to The Alliance, community nonprofits were underfunded by $461 million behind the cost of services two years ago as COVID-19 hit Connecticut.[2]

The system is buckling.

We know the legislature is focused on mental health issues as the need for services is increasing. We ask you to not lose sight of the burden nonprofits carry as they cannot pay competitive social work salaries and urge you to ensure a living, competitive wage for behavioral health workers. And while the COLA for nonprofit services last year was helpful, we urge the committee to fulfil the long-term plan to increase nonprofit funding at this critical moment. We support the funding for new initiatives in the governor’s proposed budget but existing programs need support as they struggle to keep pace with the demand.

Fill State Employee Vacancies in Behavioral Health

DMHAS is facing a staffing crisis that is impacting service delivery and the care of their clients and themselves. There are about 750 current vacancies with another 500 employees approaching retirement. It is essential, in these days filled with clients presenting with complex co-occurring mental health and addiction and soaring overdose rates, that the state re-opens closed addiction services units, adding another 100 employees.

There is a perception that there is a social worker crisis but as mentioned above, we believe there is a shortage of adequate compensation. Connecticut produces over 400 Master of Social Work graduates annually. Inclusion of those who graduate from out-of-state programs yet work in-state boosts this number to around 600 available MSWs.

A final note regarding the behavioral health workforce: our state employer has significant gaps and our community nonprofit system is overwhelmed and underpaid. The number of people seeking services is climbing and the state is in desperate need of appropriate funding for this invaluable resource: the workforce.

Our Executive Director, Steve Wanczyk-Karp, captured this situation perfectly at a recent press conference, stating “Social services are people powered. It is not like a supermarket that can add self-service lanes rather than hire cashiers.”

The decisions of the Appropriations Committee may be the hardest ones to make in Hartford. With respect and gratitude for your service and consideration,

Kathleen Callahan
Stratford, CT

[1] National Association of Social Workers. (2021). 2021 Blueprint of Federal Social Policy Priorities. Retrieved from https://www.socialworkers.org/LinkClick.aspx?fileticket=KPdZqqY60t4%3D&portalid=0.

[2] The Alliance. (2022). 2022 Legislative Agenda. Retrieved rom https://ctnonprofitalliance.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/12/2022-Public-Policy-Agenda.pdf.

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