Gavin Newsom vetoes bill to expand funding for student mental health

California Gov. Gavin Newsom on Monday vetoed a bill aimed at helping children with private insurance access mental health care at school, saying the program would be too expensive.

Newsom has been a vocal advocate for increasing mental health care in schools and has argued that parts of the bill would duplicate work his administration is already doing. But groups that help provide mental health services in schools say that while the governor’s work is positive, it doesn’t do enough to address the gap facing children with private health insurance.

Robin Determan of Seneca, an organization that provides mental health services in about 80 Bay Area schools, said the state has made strides in providing care to children under Medi-Cal, which insures about 40 percent of California children. according to the California Health Care Foundation.

Kids with Medi-Cal can see a therapist at their school, Determan said. But children with private insurance must seek care from outside providers, a process that can take much longer, she said. Parents usually have to get a referral and then may have to wait to get an appointment with a therapist if they can find one with room to accept new patients.

“Young people can really experience a significant gap where things can get a lot worse before they can access or get help,” Determan said.

The bill, AB 552, was intended to create what Determan described as a “temporary” measure that would allow children with private insurance to begin receiving therapy through their school while their families work to get them a covered therapist from their own insurance.

Newsom held an event in Fresno last month promoting increased funding in the state budget. The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed the mental health crisis in California schools, he said, and his administration is committed to fixing it.

“What we have now is a fragmented system, a system that is completely broken, a system that has clearly failed,” he said. “We have a lot of work to do to change that.”

He pointed to billions of dollars he has directed to increase mental health coverage in California schools. That money funds school mental health screenings, health workforce development, a children’s mental health resource center and expanding children’s mental health services through Medi-Cal, the state’s low-income health insurance program.

Chris Stoner-Mertz, executive director of the California Alliance for Child and Family Services, said getting students timely mental health help is essential.

“On behalf of 160 community-based organizations serving children and families in California, we are deeply disappointed by Governor Newsom’s veto of AB 552,” she wrote in a statement. “California’s youth are experiencing an unprecedented mental health crisis. … Delays in meeting our children’s needs will allow the crisis to worsen.

Improving access to mental health care is a key part of Newsom’s agenda. Last week, he signed a bill to implement his administration’s plan to treat seriously mentally ill adults, known as Care Court.

Newsom said Monday that parts of the student mental health bill are too expensive for the state to fund.

In his announcement of his veto of AB 552, Newsom said state revenue is not coming in at the rate state leaders expected, despite a projected $97.5 billion surplus in the state budget. He noted that bills passed by the Legislature this year, including AB 552, would increase state spending by $10 billion a year beyond the state budget he and lawmakers have already agreed upon. Plans for additional spending must be agreed through the budget process, he said.

“While I share the author’s goal of addressing the mental health needs of children and youth, the partnership programs proposed under this bill would duplicate requirements for school-based behavioral health services,” he wrote. “Furthermore, I am concerned that this bill could create significant one-time and ongoing costs in the millions of dollars.”

Sofia Bolag is a contributor to the San Francisco Chronicle. Email: [email protected] Twitter: @SophiaBollag

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