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Gavin Newsom vetoes bill to expand student mental health funding

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California Govt. Gavin Newsom on Monday vetoed a bill that aimed to help children with private insurance access mental health care at school, saying the program would cost too much.

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

Robin Detterman of Seneca, an organization that provides mental health services in about 80 Bay Area schools, said the state has made strides in providing care for children on Medi-Calwhich assures an estimated 40% of California kids, according to the California Health Care Foundation.

Children with Medi-Cal can see a therapist at their school, Detterman said. But kids on private insurance must seek care from outside providers, a process that can take much longer, she said. Parents typically need to get a referral, and then could 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 substantial gap in which things can get a lot worse before they are able to access or receive help,” Detterman said.

The bill, AB 552aimed to create what Detterman described as a “stopgap” measure that would allow kids with private insurance to start receiving therapy through their school while their families work to get them a therapist covered by their own insurance.

Newsom held an event in Fresno last month promoting increased funding in the state budget. The COVID-19 pandemic laid bare 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 disconnected, a system that self-evidently has failed,” he said. “We have a lot of work to do to turn that around.”

He pointed to billions in state dollars he directed to boost mental health coverage in California schools. That money funds school-based mental health screenings, health care workforce development, a children’s mental health resources hub and an expansion of child mental health services through Medi-Cal, the state’s health insurance program for low-income people.

Chris Stoner-Mertz, Executive Director of the California Alliance of Child and Family Services, said providing timely mental health care to students is essential.

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

Improving access to mental health care has been a key plank of Newsom’s agenda. Last week, he signed a bill to implement his administration’s plan to get severely mentally ill adults into treatment, known as Care Court.

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

In his veto message on AB 552Newsom said state revenue hasn’t been coming in at the rate state leaders expected, despite a projected $97.5 billion state budget surplus. He noted that bills the Legislature passed this year, including AB 552, would increase state spending by $10 billion per year outside of the state budget he and lawmakers already negotiated. Additional spending plans need to be negotiated 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 being developed,” he wrote. “Additionally, I am concerned that this bill could create significant one-time and ongoing costs in the millions of dollars.”

Sophia Bollag is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: sophia.bollag@sfchronicle.com Twitter: @SophiaBollag

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