Thursday, April 23, 2009

Massachusetts mental health advocates say budget cuts to services will mean bigger problems later

From The Daily News Tribune in Massachusetts:

BOSTON — Cost-cutting of the state's mental health programs in this year's budget will likely lead to bigger problems in the future, advocates told state legislators April 21.

"So much progress has been made, it would be a shame to see a backslide," said Jane Wennerberg, who works with the Greater Framingham affiliate of the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

The Massachusetts branch of the alliance held a lobbying day at the State House yesterday to push for level funding for the state Department of Mental Health, which is slated for a 7.3 percent cut of $50 million in the proposed House 2010 budget.

Advocates said cuts could bring decreased services, resulting in deaths, increased jail time or homelessness for residents with mental disabilities.

"(The Department of Mental Health) was really disproportionately funded, and was forced to cut relatively inexpensive, community-based services that are going to cost taxpayers more," said Waltham resident Toby Fisher, policy director for National Alliance on Mental Illness Massachusetts.

Advocates yesterday asked for the state to maintain last year's initial budget of $685 million to Department of Mental Health. The House Ways and Means Committee proposed $635 million for fiscal 2010.

The Department of Mental Health has already cut day rehabilitation, social and education services following the governor's midyear cuts, which were initially $33.5 million, but which were reduced to $9.3 million after a one-time trust fund grant.

Most community-based services were affected or eliminated, including the Support, Education and Employment Program, which provided supervision to thousands of residents. The alliance estimates 3,600 people had reductions in services and 2,600 people were completely without day services.

One MetroWest legislator said the cuts would have a strong impact on the commonwealth.

"Day support programs and family support programs are really important because they have a ripple effect," said Sen. Karen Spilka, D-Ashland. "If we don't support these programs, not only are we getting rid of workers, but also those at the programs end up having to be at home, and it affects their lives and families."

Most parents at the advocacy day event said they were concerned about the layoffs of more than 100 case managers, or one fourth of the case management department following the governor's cuts for this year's budget. They feared even deeper cuts in the House budget.

"The kind of support people are going to get after this is really unknown," said Mary Pond of the Greater Framingham National Alliance on Mental Illness.

Maura Sawyer, who works with special education in Framingham's preschools, said the loss of case workers would impact families who are just getting involved with state programs and looking for support.

"There may not be a case worker available in crisis," said Sawyer, whose 23-year-old son uses services through the state Department of Mental Health.

Jail diversion programs, including Framingham's program, which has diverted more than 2,400 residents with mental health or substance abuse issues from the criminal justice system to the human services system since 2003, reported $250,000 in reductions in October.

Spilka, an advocate for the creation and extension of the program throughout the state, said that she would fight for funding for next year.

"It helps save dollars, helps save people and helps them get more treatment, it saves time and energy for police officers and court personnel," she said. "Overall, it's just such a phenomenal program."

The $4 billion budget gap for next fiscal year, beginning July 1, has made it difficult for the governor and Legislature to fund programs at last year's levels. As a result, advocates lobbied for increases in state taxes or guarantees that a portion of federal stimulus funds would be used to fill the funding gap for mental health.

"We know this is a revenue issue, and we're supportive of taxes that would benefit mental health," said Larry DeAngelo, a liaison for the 23 affiliates of National Alliance on Mental Illness Massachusetts and board member of the Greater Framingham chapter.

Many legislators balk at the idea of new taxes, but those at the rally said it had to be done.

"We cannot do everything we want to do unless the commonwealth has more money," said Laurie Martinelli, National Alliance on Mental Illness Massachusetts' executive director.

Martinelli said the state couldn't afford the consequences.

"What happens is there's more expensive visits to emergency rooms, there's more homelessness, and there's more people who are incarcerated," she said. "This isn't magic, that's what happens when there are cuts to services."