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Quirmbach, Wilburn discuss mental health challenges, Invest in Iowa bill at forum

Ames Tribune - 3/8/2020

Sen. Herman Quirmbach, D-Ames and Rep. Ross Wilburn, D-Ames, discussed the current state of mental health funding and Gov. Kim Reynolds' proposed Invest in Iowa Act at a legislative forum in Ames on Saturday.

The two Democrats were the only legislators to make an appearance at Saturday's event, which was hosted by the League of Women Voters of Ames and Story County.

Initially scheduled to appear, Beth-Wessel Kroeschell, D-Ames, was unable to be in attendance due to illness, while other legislators declined to appear.

Despite a low turnout of legislators, a crowd of roughly 35 people filed into the City Chambers on Saturday morning to pick the two lawmakers' minds on the current legislative session.

Quirmbach has served in the Iowa Senate since 2003 and prior to that was an Ames City Council member from 1995 to 2003.

Representing District 46, Wilburn took over the seat for current Story County Supervisor and former nine-term legislator Lisa Heddens in August.

Wilburn announced that he filed for re-election this weekend.

With the 2019-20 Iowa Legislature underway and past its first funnel period, one of the big talking points was a lack of sustainable funding for mental health in the state.

Angela Tharp, who serves as the executive director of National Alliance on Mental Illness of Central Iowa after her losing her son, Connor, to suicide in 2014, noted that while she's seen some progress with mental health since 2017 -- this year's session has been without substantive mental health funding.

"I was just flabbergasted that our current mental health system -- mostly crisis and education -- in the communities is frozen at the 1996 level," said Tharp. "1996. My son that died wasn't even born then."

Tharp said she was nervous on the prospect of Reynolds' first-of-its-kind Children Mental Health bill that was passed last year and her latest bill, Invest in Iowa.

"If we do the Invest in Iowa plan, it has shown that we should have $123 million (for mental health) by 2023, which probably still is inadequate for the mental health services in Iowa, but at least it's moving forward," Tharp said.

According to the governor's office, the Invest in Iowa Act would increase state revenue by about $540 million

The revenue would be used to provide tax relief to Iowans, fund Iowa'sRegional Mental Health System and fund the Natural Resources and Outdoor Recreation Trust Fund.

The Reynolds' bill would put 3/8 of the proposed 1-cent tax toward the trust, bringing in $172 million in sustainable funding annually.

A state constitutional amendment was approved by voters in 2010 for a fund designed to put money toward water quality, soil protection, wildlife habitat enhancement, and the protection and increase of outdoor recreation opportunities.

The trust has sat unfunded since its inception.

Quirmbach, who is in his 18th year in Legislature, criticized the bill, calling it a "bait-and-switch."

"The governor's Invest in Iowa plan is a convoluted mess," Quirmbach said. "What the governor is proposing is to reallocate the percentages of the different uses that money goes to, away from what the voters were told 10 years ago through a constitutional amendment."

Quirmbach said that the proposed bill could wind up funding mental health with sales tax revenue, instead of a property tax.

According to the senator, that is not ideal, considering the potential effect the COVID-19 virus could have on Iowa's economy.

"I'm not really optimistic about our sales tax forecast for the next year," Quirmbach said. "If we're going to put mental health on that tax revenue stream, I think mental health is going to be in for a bumpy ride."

Wilburn said one the challenges for Iowa, a state that lacks a comprehensive mental health system, is lack of accessibility for those in need.

"I think (Tharp) illustrated the challenges in Iowa, without having a comprehensive mental care system," Wilburn said. "By not recognizing someone who has a mental illness or a brain injury, and their (inability) to not have a certain appointment at a certain time."

Both legislators also provided updates on the current session.

Wilburn mentioned a measure that would require thousands of Iowans to meet work or volunteer requirements in order to receive health coverage under the state's Medicaid expansion program that advanced through the Iowa Senate.

"There are times when you are in the minority, where you try to do what you can to make a bill that will make a negative impact a little less harmful," Wilburn said.

The state implemented Medicaid expansion in January 2014 and since 2015 the state has levied an additional premium on individuals with incomes exceeding 50 percent of the federal poverty level.

Anyone who did not comply with the work requirements during the first six months of eligibility would receive 30 days' notice before their eligibility was terminated.

Anyone who is terminated can re-enroll if they become compliant with the requirements, but that's often at a hefty price.

Wilburn said this legislative session has introduced a language that makes make re-enrollment feeless when a patient is dropped from the plan for the first time.

"I'm assuming the (bill's) intent was to address fraud, or what little fraud there may be," Wilburn said. "I was able to work with Rep. Anne Osmundson, that if someone does get dropped, that the first time they get dropped, they can re-enroll with no fee."

If it becomes law, Iowa would join 20 other states in seeking a form of work requirements for some Medicaid recipients.

Another notable bill passed by both chambers of the Legislature is a 2.3 percent increase in allowable growth for the state's public schools.

Quirmbach, a frequent proponent of funding for K-12 education, said the bill is both "too little" and "too late."

"The percent increase that was set at 2.3 percent, that was too low. We have not even kept up with inflation the last three years when the Republicans have been in control of the House and the Senate."

Quirmbach said it would take an increase of about 4 percent to 4.5 percent next year to keep up with inflation.

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(c)2020 the Ames Tribune, Iowa

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