Budget cuts could put mentally ill at risk

Published 3:20 pm Friday, February 26, 2010

A projected budget shortfall of more than $14 million 2011 is prompting both state and local mental health officials to brace for cuts that could leave thousands of mentally ill Alabamians without care.

Wednesday, members of the South Central Alabama Mental Health Board, which serves Butler, Coffee, Crenshaw and Covington counties, discussed the funding crisis, as well as comments made during a recent legislative briefing. Currently, the SCAMHB services 4,484 clients.

In Gov. Bob Riley’s proposed budget for FY2011, $372.3 million has been allocated to fund mental health statewide – a $9.3 million decrease over the FY2010 budget.

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When combined with another $2.5 million needed to keep the current level of services and an additional $2.3 million for the replacement of federal block grant funds, the department is facing a $14.1 million projected shortfall.

Additionally, $31.5 million in federal stimulus money is included in that proposed budget.

“And that’s money we don’t even know that we’re going to get – and that’s the best case scenario,” said SCAMHB director Diane Baugher. “Worst case scenario is that the special mental health fund doesn’t grow the way it’s expected and we don’t get federal stimulus funds, we’re looking at a $55 million shortfall.”

The special mental health fund is mental health’s major operating fund and is comprised of receipts from certain public utilities taxes, contractors gross receipts tax, distillers and whiskey tax profits, insurance premium taxes, as well as federal funds.

The Mental Health Operating Fund also receives annual appropriations from the state general fund and the education trust fund.

The department has already implemented cost-cutting measures such as eliminating cost of living adjustments and suspending merit raises for employees, instituting a hiring freeze, decreasing staffing levels statewide and delaying maintenance at state facilities.

“But the impact of what these shortfalls mean our local community will suffer,” Baugher said.

Baugher said the waiting list for services will continue to grow and some services could be halted altogether.

“Community providers – like us – will be forced to reduce or close residential, day and support programs,” she said. “People won’t be able to get the services they need. Emergency rooms will back up with people in crisis and the homeless will increase because there are no resources for proper care.

“In short, we’re in jeopardy,” she said.

Jim Perdue, Crenshaw County probate judge and SCAMHB member, addressed the local board with points he made at a recent legislative briefing in Montgomery.

“If mental health is not properly funded, we’re going to have a real crisis on our hands,” Perdue said. “(As a probate judge) I can say those suffering from mental illnesses that I see are a danger to themselves and to others. Funded or not, these people are going to be here.

Severe cuts to mental health operations will put people who are “homicidal and suicidal” on the streets without services and perhaps without medication, Perdue said.

“We’ve heard about people who ride down the road in Geneva and shoot at people and a teacher who shoots her colleagues,” he said. “If we don’t have the money (to treat clients), then we can’t do all we can do, and (the legislature) should consider that.”