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House candidates share views on healthcare issues

Both candidates running for the District 89 seat in the Alabama House of Representatives are concerned about the state of mental health care in the state, while they disagree about how to handle Medicaid.

Both mental health and Medicaid are pressing issues for the legislature to address, both Republican Wes Allen and Democrat Joel Williams attested.

Allen said he has seen firsthand the importance of providing care for the mentally ill in his role as probate judge.

“Funding for mental health continues to be a huge issue in our state,” Allen said. “A large part of being probate judge is dealing with mental health in the community and I can tell you it is an issue that we need to address.”

Allen said the majority of mental health issues that he deals with are in some way or another related to substance abuse, with many people using drugs and alcohol to self-medicate.

The lack of bed space for mentally ill patients is something that the legislature needs to address, Allen said.

“The state has moved away from long-term bed placement,” Allen said. “We need to make sure bed space is available. Once they reach probate office, that’s a heartbreaking situation; the issue is how do we address it earlier?”

Williams pointed back to a time when the state did provide more bed spaces for mental health as the way to go, even if the system is not perfect.

“At least we had a system with fault and flaws – there were bed spaces, there were professionals treating,” Williams said. “We need to roll back the clock on mental health treatment … The largest provider of mental health care is now the county jail. Our mentally ill are now just in prisons and jails instead of at mental health facilities; they didn’t go anywhere.”

While Allen said he would like to solve the problems with the mental health system in Alabama, he said he would need a closer look at the budget to determine what solutions could be implemented.

“Where are we going to get the money? I don’t know,” Allen said. “About 67 percent of the general fund is taken up by Medicaid and prisons. That’s eating up a huge portion of the general fund budget … I don’t have the answers today whether that’s right amount or not, but it’s a huge portion and it’s a struggle and from what I hear, it’s been a struggle since the recession.”

Even if Allen isn’t sure about reducing Medicaid, he said he is against expanding it in Alabama.

“I’m not for expanding Medicaid because we don’t have any way now of paying for it,” Allen said. “If (the federal government pays) for it for a number of years and then it falls back on the state, then what? I’d have to look at the individual bill before reducing it though; we have to take care of the least among us that can’t take care of themselves.”

Williams said Alabama should take the Medicaid expansion and allow for more federal money to flow into the state.

“The federal government pays 90 percent of it,” Williams said. “A 90-10 match is just good business. And that doesn’t just provide healthcare, it provides jobs on which people pay taxes. It’s not just a healthcare boon, it would be an economic boon. Republicans philosophically fear that it represents government expansion.”

Williams said it is important to fund Medicaid in part to keep rural hospitals up and running.

“When a hospital closes, it doesn’t just close for poor people, it closes for everybody,” Williams said. “If rural hospitals close and you’re driving on I-65 from Mountain Brook to Gulf Shores and have a wreck, you’ll be picking whether you want an ambulance from Montgomery or Mobile.”

Pike and Dale county voters will decide between Allen and Williams on Tuesday, November 6. The polls will be open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. Photo identification is required to vote.