New Round of HTI Funding Comes with a Lot of Empty (Evaluation) Calories

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Never a dull moment with our colleagues at SAMHSA. The announcement of a new round of funding opportunities for Healthy Transitions grants (HTI), which we consider excellent news, comes tinged with the apparent decision not to include a robust evaluation component. According to SAMHSA, while they are remaining committed to conducting evaluations as part of grant programs, they also want to be mindful of "grantee burden."


What about all of the outrage during the crafting of the Helping Families in Mental Health Crisis Act, which eventually became part of the Cures bill? Back then, (seems forever ago), members of Congress were raking SAMHSA officials over the coals for not being evidence-based enough. In fact, several new entities were created (Assistant Secretary position, Mental Health and Substance Use Policy Laboratory, Interdepartmental Serious Mental Illness Coordinating Committee (ISMICC)) to ensure a more rigorous approach to evaluation.

And yet, with a new Assistant Secretary, a newly created Mental Health and Substance Use Policy Laboratory, and freshly created ISMICC, we are witnessing an agency going in reverse when it comes to supporting rigorous evaluation. Two prime examples are the cancellation of the NREPP contract and the cancellation of the evaluation contract for the current round of HTI and Project Aware grants.

To be fair, SAMHSA is indicating that the new round of HTI grants will include an evaluation component that focuses on the collection and analysis of NOMS data by SAMHSA staff. Not quite sure yet who these staff will be or if there will be sufficient person-power to complete this task. Beyond the collection of NOMS data, which is "evaluation-lite" at best, there is apparently discussion taking place with the Center for Behavioral Health Statistics and Quality (CBHSQ) to determine next steps for conducting evaluation activities.

Uh, yep, that explanation is about as clear as mud.

Let's be clear, we are excited that the President's budget includes funding for HTI, and we encourage readers to apply for this funding. But we are also concerned that the new round of funding comes with vastly reduced evaluation requirements. This trend toward lowering evaluation requirements for grantees and moving evaluation efforts in-house makes the recent decision to cancel the evaluation contract for the current round of HTI grants even more important to revisit.

I remain supremely puzzled at the apparent lack of interest in conducting a robust evaluation of programmatic efforts to learn more about "what works." For the current round of grants, the time one baseline assessment has been completed, but the more important time two assessments still need to be done. Without those time two assessments there is no way to assess meaningful change.

Why does SAMHSA seem to be so intent on weakening the evaluation component of the grants it funds? At a minimum, it would be most helpful for Assistant Secretary McCance-Katz to reconsider the decision to cancel the evaluation contract for the current round of HTI and Project Aware grants and give the opportunity for the evaluation to reach completion.

Remember, these grants were initially created after the Sandy Hook massacre when the nation was screaming for answers and SAMHSA was under the hot light of congressional scrutiny about not doing enough for those with serious mental illness.

I encourage readers who have an investment is seeing SAMHSA continue robust evaluation of the programs they (and ultimately we) fund, write Dr. McCance-Katz an email and let her know your thoughts about the importance of a healthy and independent evaluation of HTI efforts. Remember to:

Okay, Network faithful, change only happens if we all get involved. If this issue is important to you, take a few moments to send the Assistant Secretary a message encouraging her to rethink the decision to end the evaluation contract for the HTI and Project Aware grants prematurely. 

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 Scott Bryant-Comstock
President & CEO
Children's Mental Health Network



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