Friday, February 20, 2009

Utah advocates say mental health cuts will lead to higher costs later

From The Salt Lake Tribune in Utah:

Cuts to funding for mental health programs won't save the state money, advocates said Thursday, arguing it will lead to higher spending elsewhere.

More than $5.5 million will be eliminated from state funding for such programs if lawmakers approve the most recent funding scenario for next year's budget. Up to 90 beds could be lost at the Utah State Hospital, which houses the state's most severely mentally ill.

Advocates describe the cuts as disproportionately harsh, in part due to the massive amount of federal Medicaid dollars that would be lost. Medicaid matches state funding at a three to one ratio, which could result in a loss of about $10 million in federal dollars for local mental health providers.

Counties rely on those dollars to bolster their local mental heath services, some of which are already stretched.

"As it is, the system is struggling," said Sherri Wittwer, executive director of National Alliance on Mental Illness of Utah, which held a press conference Feb. 19. "So to add such extreme cuts to the situation really would be devastating."

Several dozen Utahns --- some who had struggled with mental illness themselves or had family who had done so -- gathered at the alliance's Salt Lake City office before heading to the capitol to advocate for better funding.

The attitude still exists that mental illness originates from sin or lack of willpower, Wittwer said. In fact, mental illness can be treated and those people can once again become taxpaying citizens, supporters said.

Shane Bullock, who now works at NAMI, spoke of how mental illness had taken away years of his life. "Mental illness is for real," he said. "Its effects can be forever if left untreated."

A mother whose mentally ill son killed his father praised the state hospital, where the son now lives. "If these services are taken away, then the problem is just going to go elsewhere," said Mary Gully, who is also the NAMI development director.

Another parent, Brad Bangerter, questioned whether mental illness had been singled out. "We wouldn't allow this if it were some other kind of illness," he said.

Advocates emphasized that children, who are about one-third of the population helped by public mental health services, would feel the impact along with their families.

Without treatment, mentally ill people often land in jail, a problem that could grow worse with the budget cuts, advocates said. About 30 percent of the people in jail in Utah are mentally ill, compared to 5 percent of the general public, according to statistics provided by NAMI.