Credit: Needham Observer

Having identified a significant increase in youth mental health needs that have arisen post-pandemic, the Public Health department is seeking Town Meeting approval to hire two clinicians for the department’s Youth & Family Services division.

It is one of two public health-related articles on the Special Town Meeting warrant that combined would allow Public Health to expand its mental health and substance-misuse services by tapping more than a half-million dollars made available from sources outside of the town’s operating budget. 

One of the articles, Article 2, relates to a $400,000 allocation from Children’s Hospital that must be spent on adolescent health services. The other, Article 4, involves $145,000 in proceeds from the state opioid settlement fund intended only for programs related to substance misuse.

The $400,000 from Children’s Hospital is being provided under the terms of a host community agreement negotiated with the town in 2020. In lieu of paying personal property taxes, Children’s agreed to an ongoing payment schedule for funding youth health initiatives.

If Town Meeting approves Article 2, the Public Health department will use the funds to hire two clinicians. One would be an outreach clinician to work primarily with the Park & Recreation department, spending time at locations in town where youth congregate, such as the library. The clinician would identify and address mental health challenges in the community and provide case management, referrals and crisis intervention when necessary.

The second clinician would be a community training coordinator who would expand the town’s mental health programs, especially at the high school. This would include implementing a Youth Mental Health First Aid program to train staff and students to identify signs of mental health stress in peers and how they might respond.

If approved, the $400,000 appropriation would cover the two positions for the next two fiscal years. Future $200,000 annual payments from Children’s are expected to provide funding in subsequent years.

Children’s paid its initial $200,000 last fiscal year when it was issued a building permit for its outpatient surgical center in the New England Business Center on the east side of Rte. 128. A second $200,000 will come when construction is 50% complete, which is anticipated in this fiscal year.

The hospital will contribute its next $200,000 upon receiving its occupancy permit and will continue to make annual payments in perpetuity. The center is expected to open in December 2025.

Article 4 seeks approval for Public Health’s plans for the use of $145,000 in funds from the state’s Community Opioid Settlement Fund. This money would be from the town’s Opioid Settlement Stabilization Fund, which currently has a $217,288 balance built up from previous distributions from the settlement.

Needham will receive annual installments over the next 15 years, with the expectation that the amounts will gradually diminish each year. This is part of the $1 billion Massachusetts will receive from settlements with manufacturers, distributors and pharmacies over their role in triggering the epidemic of opioid addiction that continues to this day.

Town Meeting is being asked to approve plans to dedicate the bulk of this year’s funds to hire consultants to help conduct an intensive public engagement process. This effort will obtain input from the community about needs and priorities, especially from affected groups, including people in recovery, family of substance addicted persons and those who have been incarcerated as a result of substance misuse.

While the state’s guidelines have to be followed in spending the money, “There is quite a bit of local discretion in terms of organizing the work and which area or areas to prioritize,” said Tim McDonald, director of public health.

More immediate uses would include installing overdose reversal kits alongside the automated external defibrillators (AEDs) in town buildings and hiring a peer recovery coach to directly support individuals in their recovery from substance use disorders.

Because the money has been long anticipated, Public Health staff is prepared to act quickly in implementing its plans for the opioid settlement funds.

“We have actually done the procurements related to this and we have contracts in hand that will start in November if Town Meeting approves it,” McDonald said at the Oct. 13 Board of Health meeting.

“If Town Meeting doesn’t (approve), then we’ll have to cancel those contracts,” he said. If Town Meeting approves, “we can hit the ground running.”

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