Behavioral health focus of Mat-Su Health Foundation grants

As state lawmakers prepare to grapple with a tight state budget, one non-profit is gearing up to deal with health needs in the Matanuska-Susitna Borough. The Mat-Su Health Foundation is stepping in to provide funding for behavioral health services in the face of expected cuts. One program benefiting from grant money is aiming to curb the earliest sources of drug and alcohol abuse with a focus on Adverse Childhood Experiences awareness.

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Recent reports of legislators eyeing further cuts to education and social services has alarmed health providers in the Matanuska-Susitna Borough. As it is, the Mat-Su Health Foundation is trying to fill the gap in state funding, with a series of grants aimed at helping health providers expand needed services for a growing population. Robin Minard is the Health Foundation’s public affairs director.

“There is some state funding, but unfortunately, our state funding per capita is significantly less than other areas of the state. Our dollars have not changed, even though our population has doubled.”

Minard says the current amount of state funding is like operating with 1990 dollars in 2015. And that money is not distributed fairly, she says, as she points to a graphic comparing what state grants pay Anchorage, Fairbanks and Juneau per person for youth and adult mental health care and for substance abuse services.

For instance, Mat-Su gets $13 per person for substance abuse, Juneau gets $44. Minard says, ruefully, if further cuts to the state’s behavioral health budget happen, it won’t change anything.

“Perhaps, if cuts happen to the behavioral health budget, they won’t happen in Mat-Su, because it is already so disproportionate.”

The Health Foundation is critical of the state’s method of funding of behavioral health treatment, or in identifying neeeds in substance abuse treatment, because the state relies on a grant process.

Bradley Grigg, state director of behavioral health grants says in an email:

“Currently, it boils down to statutory guidance. In Alaska, grants are the avenue in which an agency can bill Medicaid. At this point, the Division of Behavioral Health can only grant-fund nonprofits and municipalities.”

Grigg says state statutes prevent grants for private for-profit addict treatment programs, such as drug detox facilities or rehab services for heroin addicts. But, he says, the state does fund opiod treatment programs in Juneau, Fairbanks and Anchorage.

Despite an escalating need for them, detox beds don’t exist in Mat-Su, and long term recovery centers are in short supply there, Minard says. She says two Health Foundation reports assessing Borough health needs point to substance abuse as the number one health care target in the area.

“And then we are also trying to look at what causes people to become addicts in the first place. And a lot of times that traces back to childhood trauma. There is a reason people are abusing drugs and alcohol.”

Minard says a third report to be released in January will address prevention at the earliest stages. To that end, the Health Foundation has awarded grants to a number of organizations that are working to address Valley health concerns.  Earlier this month the Health Foundation awarded $1.7 million in “Healthy Impact” grants, and one of the recipients is CCS Early Learning, the Head Start provider in Chugiak and the Valley. CCS executive director Mark Lackey says the organization serves some 320 students under age 5 — the majority from low income homes.

“I think we have always been very aware of the fact that a lot of our kids have trauma, and that trauma impacts their lives over the long term.”

Early exposure to domestic violence, or drug use or alcohol abuse are some of those traumas.

Lackey says the CDC’s Adverse Childhood Experiences [ACES] study focused attention on childhood trauma’s lingering impacts. And ACES information is prompting changes in how teachers and care givers relate to their students, however young. CCS is using the grant to build its Road to Resilience program for parents and staff.

“With this grant that we received from the Mat-Su Health Foundation, we are working very hard to educate our parents about the ACES study. You know, even our own staff found that thinking about ACES in a different way, changes how you really relate to children. It is no longer necessarily about the child, it is about why the child is having those behaviors. ”

But early childhood trauma is not a life sentence, Lackey says, and it can be overcome.

“The choices you make and how you respond [to trauma] are important, ” he says.

“We are really excited about it,” Lackey says, adding that until now, early prevention received little funding. This year, CCS received $65,000 in Health Foundation grants.

CCS ‘s Resilience program started introducing parents to ACES last year. This year, the money will be used to further train staff and to increase mental health assessment capabilities.