Elinor Smith

HELENA (UM Legislative News Service) -- Proponents of a bill that would spend $300 million on behavioral health say it’s time for the state to finally make a big investment for long-term change.

House Bill 872 passed the Senate Wednesday on a vote of 42-8 after emotional testimony from lawmakers the day before and it is now on its way to the governor’s desk.

The bill would create a special state fund devoted to supporting behavioral health services, including community-based facilities and providers that serve people with developmental disabilities or behavioral health issues.

It would also set up a mental health advisory commission, which would be composed of lawmakers from both parties. They would advise The Department of Health and Human Services on how it should invest the money.

According to the fiscal note attached to the bill, the program would spend $300 million from the state’s general fund over the next two years to get the program off the ground. Behavioral health services, particularly community-based providers and facilities have struggled in the last decade or so as demand for the care they provide rises. And now that the state is sitting on a budget surplus, proponents argued that this is a chance for the Legislature to make things better. 

Sen. John Esp, R-Big Timber, carried the bill in the Senate. He shared stories of family members and friends who struggled with mental health and some who took their own lives. He said the memories have haunted him for years and that’s what made him advocate for a better system of support since his first session in 2003.

“The pain and the grief and the guilt that you feel in those instances are something I wouldn't wish on anybody. So I've always been an optimistic type of person, and I've always thought that things would -- would be better around the corner. I think the corner is here. If you peek into House Bill 872, you can see solutions from here,” Esp said. 

Sen. Ryan Lynch, D-Butte, said HB 872 would help address mental health crises, which can often go unnoticed until they reach a breaking point. 

“Much unlike physical health, the folks out there suffering from mental health, we don't see them, we don't recognize it. And they do need to know that we do see them, we do recognize them and we do appreciate them and we want to invest in them,” Lynch said. 

The bill passed the House of Representatives earlier this month on a 79-to-19 vote.