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PEF questions any future merger of OMH and OASAS

By SHERRY HALBROOK

July 13, 2021 — In his 2021 NYS Executive Budget proposal, Gov. Andrew Cuomo called for merging the state Office of Mental Health (OMH) and the state Office of Addiction Services and Supports (OASAS).  PEF, working through its Statewide Political Action Committee (SWPAC), was able to stop this proposal from being included in the final budget deal.  However, the state Senate passed a one-house bill to effectuate this merger, but the state Assembly did not.  So the merger is neither part of the adopted state budget, nor a part of state law.

But that doesn’t mean the proposal won’t return in next year’s legislation session.

Committees from both houses held a joint hearing on the issue June 21, and PEF submitted written testimony expressing strong concerns about the proposal.

“While we certainly support the greater integration of services for individuals suffering from co-occurring conditions, PEF believes that it is critically important for each of these agencies, which have specific and unique missions, to operate as separate entities,” the union said.

Furthermore, PEF said, it is deeply concerned that the state continues to decrease its services to those who are suffering from mental illness and/or addiction and those cuts disproportionately affect low income, uninsured/under-insured and/or undocumented New Yorkers who rely on access to these basic public services.  The union cited stunning statistics about the rapid rise in drug overdose fatalities, such as the 85 such deaths in Erie County in the first four months of 2020 compared to just 48 during the same months of 2019.

PEF recognized that “The rationale stated by advocates for the merger of these two agencies is to provide a more seamless integration of services for those suffering from co-occurring disorders and to expedite the flow of federal and other resources to not-for-profit providers.”  However, the union also said, “There is currently an integration of services between OASAS and OMH and that coordination includes the co-licensure of providers between the two agencies.  PEF supports the ability of the agencies to continue this trend for individuals with co-occurring disorders with specific emphasis around coordinating mental health evaluation and diagnoses through OMH and the ability of OASAS to access pharmaceutical services through OMH in certain geographic areas like New York City or other areas where appropriate.”

PEF questioned why “the timely and appropriate flow of federal and other resources to OASAS, OMH or the provider agencies and the integration of services for co-occurring disorders would be the driving forces for a merger of this magnitude.”

If both agencies really support coordinating their operations to fill these service gaps, PEF asked, why have “the commissioners of OMH and OASAS been unable to further collaborate independently to integrate their systems to address these problems absent the executive’s proposal,”?

PEF said it is very concerned “that all of the legislative proposals advanced to effectuate a merger of these agencies do not contain the planning, detail and safeguards required to make a merger successful.”

If the agencies are ever merged in the future, “given the size and complexity of the operations, facilities, personnel and programing of these two agencies,” PEF believes that “any merger should be effectuated according to an established ‘roadmap’ or plan that is developed in advance of the merger, and such plans should require stakeholder input throughout the process and provide for appropriate and on-going legislative oversight of the decision making processes.

“We do not believe that a merger between OASAS and OMH should be developed and implemented by non-elected officials who are not accountable to taxpayers or the members of the Legislature,” said the union’s written testimony.  Additionally, PEF feels strongly that all existing programs, services and staffing operated currently under OASAS and OMH must continue uninterrupted and unchanged under the consolidated agency.”

The union provided a detailed list of elements that should be implemented prior to any merger going forward:

• A draft merger plan developed by leadership at the two agencies and reviewed by a taskforce of stakeholders;
• Transparent legislative oversight, review and approval of such a plan;
• Addiction treatment centers must remain open;
• Continuation of the crucial role of credentialed addiction substance abuse counselors;
• Prohibited redeployment of nurses and other specialized staff; and
• Prohibited further privatization and consolidation of these public services.

PEF’s full written testimony can be read here.