Montana Lawmakers Seek More Information About Governor’s HEART Fund

A fund championed by Gov. Greg Gianforte to fill gaps in Montana’s substance use and behavioral health treatment programs has spent $5.2 million since last year as the state waits for an additional $19 million in federal funding.

Now, the Republican governor wants to put more state money into the Healing and Ending Addiction Through Recovery and Treatment initiative, but lawmakers and mental health advocates are asking for more accountability and clarity on how the money is spent.

Republican Rep. Jennifer Carlson, chair of the Human Services Committee of the Montana House of Representatives, said her committee has heard bill proposals seeking to use HEART money for child care and suicide prevention programs, among others. She is sponsoring a bill to increase HEART initiative reporting requirements.

“You really have to think, is that what that money is for, or is that just what’s convenient?” said Carlson.

Matt Kuntz, executive director of the Montana chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, said a lot of questions have been floating around about the initiative this legislative session.

“Nobody really knows exactly how this is being spent or the process of how to get it,” Kuntz said.

The legislature passed Gianforte’s HEART initiative soon after he took office. It uses revenue primarily from recreational marijuana taxes for the state’s $6 million annual share to be distributed to programs dedicated to treating substance use and mental health disorders.

A federal match would bring the fund total to $25 million, but the state is waiting for full approval of its Medicaid waiver application from the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services. The federal agency approved part of the waiver last year.

“Until CMS approves the full HEART waiver, the state is limited in what we can do,” said Jon Ebelt, spokesperson for the state Department of Public Health and Human Services.

The health department submits a report to CMS four times a year. Department officials did not respond to a request by KHN for the latest report. The department is supposed to receive reports from tribal nations on how their funds were used. It didn’t specify whether it had received any.

Carlson’s House Bill 310 would require the department to report HEART initiative spending to the Children, Families, Health, and Human Services Interim Committee each year. That reporting would allow lawmakers to know what the money had already been used for, and if there might be a better way to spend it, Carlson said.

When Gianforte introduced the HEART initiative during his 2021 State of the State speech, he said it was designed to give directly to local communities, which know their own needs best.

“This is not bigger government,” the governor said at the time.

The HEART money is distributed through grants and Medicaid-funded services. Of the $5.2 million distributed since 2022, $1.5 million has gone to Medicaid for services like inpatient and residential chemical dependency services, Ebelt said.

Eight Indigenous tribal nations have received $1 million covering fiscal year 2022, the first year of the fund, and 2023, the current fiscal year, which ends June 30. Those grants went toward substance use prevention; mental health promotion; mental health crisis, treatment, and recovery services; and tobacco cessation and prevention.

Seven county detention centers received a total of $2.7 million in HEART money through a competitive grant process to provide behavioral health services at those facilities.

Missoula County hired a therapist, jail care coordinator, and mental health transport officer with its share. Gallatin County hired a counselor and two social workers, and Lewis and Clark County hired a therapist, case manager, and education and transport manager.

Jackie Kerry Lemon, program and facilities director at the Gallatin County Detention Center, said the money had to be used for mental health and addiction services. “Our population is often in crisis when they come to us, so having that ability to have a therapist see them really does help with their anxiety and their needs at a good time,” Kerry Lemon said.

Democratic Rep. Mary Caferro said the HEART money could go toward increases in the Medicaid rates paid to health care providers, which a state study found fall short of the cost of care, or mobile crisis response teams, which the health department intends to provide as a Medicaid service.

Caferro is sponsoring a bill on behalf of the National Alliance on Mental Illness to add youth suicide prevention to the list of programs eligible for HEART funding.

Mary Windecker, executive director of the Behavioral Health Alliance of Montana, said the HEART fund initially was meant to support tribes and county jails, and only recently did it start funding community substance use and mental health programs, after last year’s partial Medicaid waiver approval.

That allowed larger substance use disorder treatment centers (more than 17 beds) to receive Medicaid reimbursement for short-term stays at institutions for mental illness, like Rimrock in Billings and the Badlands Treatment Center in Glendive.

From July 2022 to January 2023, Ebelt said, 276 Medicaid recipients were treated in Rimrock and Badlands. A facility in Clinton, the Recovery Centers of Montana, opened in December and will be licensed for 55 additional beds able to serve patients with the new Medicaid benefit, Ebelt said. Gianforte proposed in his state budget to increase the amount going into the HEART fund by changing the funding formula from $6 million a year to 11% of Montana’s annual recreational marijuana tax revenue.

The Behavioral Health Alliance recommended that change, but, as with many of the health-related proposals in this legislative session, a major factor in the HEART initiative’s success will be whether Medicaid provider rates are raised enough, Windecker said. If provider rates aren’t funded at the full cost of care, people won’t be available to provide the care the initiative promises, she said.

The committee that meets to determine the health department’s budget will hear a presentation about the HEART initiative on Feb. 9.

Keely Larson is the KHN fellow for the UM Legislative News Service, a partnership of the University of Montana School of Journalism, the Montana Newspaper Association, and Kaiser Health News. Larson is a graduate student in environmental and natural resources journalism at the University of Montana.

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