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Pam Sagness, director of the behavioral health division for the North Dakota Department of Human Services, presents to members of the interim Health Services Committee during a hearing at the state Capitol in Bismarck in September the department's plan to carry out study results regarding the behavioral health system.

The North Dakota Senate passed a budget bill on Tuesday that includes a boost in funding for behavioral health services.

Senators voted 45-1 to pass Senate Bill 2012, which provides funding to the North Dakota Department of Human Services. The bill includes additional funding to expand the Free Through Recovery program, establish a mental health voucher and continue a school behavioral health pilot project.

The budget bill includes an extension of the addiction recovery program, Free Through Recovery, which was established during the 2017 legislative session. The program only serves people in the criminal justice system.

The bill provides an additional $4.5 million to establish a community behavioral health program, which would serve people who are not former inmates.

Pam Sagness, director of the department's Division of Behavioral Health Services, said the goal with the program is to intervene earlier with parents. Currently, about 40 percent of children in the foster care system are there due to parental substance abuse, she said.

"We would like to be able to intervene with the community-based program so that families can stay together," Sagness said.

Another part of the bill includes $275,000 for peer support certification.

A year ago, the state began training peer support specialists through the Free Through Recovery program. These specialists use their experiences of recovery from an addiction or mental illness and, after undergoing training, support others in a behavioral health setting.

Sagness said there currently isn't peer support certification in the state, and creating one would establish consistency and effective standards around peer support training.

Another part of the bill provides $1.05 million to establish a mental health voucher program and give funding to mental health providers. Sagness said the voucher is modeled after the substance use disorder voucher program that was launched in 2015. Since then, the voucher has been successful and served more than 1,900 people, according to Sagness.

The mental health voucher covers youth ages 17 to 25 that have a serious mental illness or a serious emotional disturbance. Sagness said this population has the "highest needs" and may not have access to services.

"It address gaps in our (mental health) system," she said.

The Senate bill also includes $300,000 to continue a school behavioral health pilot project that began with funding from the state Legislature in 2017. The Department of Human Services partnered with Bismarck's Simle Middle School for the project this school year.

The department is currently using the funding to collect data and create a screening tool school personnel can use to identify children in need of mental health services.

The pilot project was only a year long, so the additional funding will allow the department to continue to work with Simle, as well as bring on a rural school and a tribal school.

Also, the budget bill provides $300,000 for the Department of Human Services to continue work to improve the state's behavioral health system. Last year, the nonprofit Human Services Research Institute completed a report of North Dakota's behavioral health system and found that the state needed to invest more in prevention and early intervention.

The funding would allow the Department of Human Services to continue to work with the organization past the funding cut-off date of June 30.

"We have more than 100 recommendations of things we need to get done. We can't do it all before June," Sagness said.

Sagness applauded lawmakers' investments in behavioral health.

"Everyone is saying behavioral health is key, and this is the first step in seeing that is the true focus," she said.

The department's budget bill passed in the Senate by a vote of 45-1 on Tuesday.

"We're addressing behavioral health at the adult level, at the youth level, in the community, in the schools. We're making a big difference in the lives of the people of North Dakota," Sen. Dick Dever, R-Bismarck, said during the floor session.

The bill now advances to the House.

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(Reach Blair Emerson at 701-250-8251 or Blair.Emerson@bismarcktribune.com)

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