County behavioral health services to get a boost in funding following vote

At its Dec. 22 meeting, the Pierce County Council passed a sales tax increase to fund more behavioral health services.

The one-tenth of 1 percent tax passed by a vote of 5 to 1, with Chair Doug Richardson, Dave Morell, Connie Ladenburg, Marty Campbell and Derek Young voting yes. Councilmember Jim McCune voted against the tax increase.

Per county code, tax increases require a supermajority of five “yes” votes to pass.

Proposal No. 2020-138s also sets in motion the creation of a pilot program aimed at reinvesting more Medicaid dollars into Pierce County. The Accountable Care Organization will oversee distribution of federal Medicaid dollars in the county.

The sales tax increase, estimated to generate $12 million annually for behavioral health services, is meant to fill gaps not covered by the program or Medicaid.

The ACO model is the first of its kind in the state. Proposed by the Regional System of Care Committee, it was presented to the County Council in October as one way to improve regional services for behavioral health.

“The ACO pilot plan allows for local engagement, ownership and governance, and for Pierce County to build a better healthcare system,” said Morell, who co-sponsored the ordinance with council members Young and Ladenburg. “We have protected taxpayers by requiring development of a strategic plan for behavioral health response, including a performance audit review, a date for when the tax collection will end and a data platform to show where the money is being spent efficiently and effectively with measurable results.”

Ladenburg acknowledged that some people may say a pandemic is not the time to be discussing a tax increase.

“We have seen an increase in suicides, depression, suicide attempts, and they have all risen,” she said. “We need this tax now more than ever.”

McCune disagreed, noting raising taxes during a pandemic — especially after the county received federal CARES Act funding — is unwise.

“I’m really saddened to see that we’re dealing with a tax here at this COVID time, when people are going out of business, and in some cases 50 percent of the restaurants might go out of business,” he said before explicitly confirming his intention to vote against the tax increase.

The state Health Care Authority must approve the pilot and forward its recommendation to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. Collection of the sales tax increase depends on state approval. The ordinance now goes to the county executive for signature. The county finance director has until April 15, 2021, to certify state and federal agency approval of the ACO model. Once certified. the sales tax increase will be collected. The tax collection will cease after Dec. 31, 2027, unless extended by a future County Council.


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