Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Tennessee lawmaker hopes to minimize cuts to services for children, mental health programs

From the Chattanooga Times Free-Press:

NASHVILLE — Warnings by advocates and lawmakers that planned cuts in mental health and children’s services go too far are not lost on Gov. Phil Bredesen, who acknowledges he shares at least some of their worries.

“I’m very concerned about the cuts in children’s services and mental health,” Gov. Bredesen said last week, adding that he’s hoping to find “some way to mitigate some of those cuts in children’s services and mental health.”

The state “may be able to give some help in that area before this is all over,” Gov. Bredesen said.

The administration had been grappling with a projected revenue shortfall of some $1.1 billion and had planned to phase in cuts for all departments over a several-year period, using federal stimulus money to offset the immediate need.

But now that the state faces an additional $161 million to $250 million shortfall, the state is looking at accelerating cuts in the proposed 2009-10 budget lawmakers are still working on.

The administration previously proposed saving $11.8 million in the 2009-10 and 2010-11 budgets by limiting forensic inpatient evaluations for mentally ill people, slashing beds at regional mental health institutes and eliminating 213 institute positions.

Sita Diehl, executive director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness-Tennessee recently told lawmakers that seriously mentally ill people who pose a risk to themselves or to others run the risk of being thrown on a “human trash heap” if the Bredesen administration’s cuts are carried out.

Stewart Clifton, who lobbies for the Tennessee Conference on Social Welfare, later warned that if the administration goes through with other cuts to community mental health services, that system will be “in danger of collapsing.”

The administration has sent out letters to dozens of community mental health agencies informing them that on July 1 they intend to slash $6.7 million in funding for crucial community support services, said Bill Dobbins of NAMI-Tennessee.

For example, according to information provided by Mr. Dobbins, Chattanooga-based Volunteer Behaviorial Health Care System alone is slated to lose over $500,000 in funding.

That includes $94,000 for a criminal justice/mental health liaison project that fosters communication and coordination between communities, criminal justice officials and the mental health systems for adults with serious mental illness who are incarcerated or at risk of incarceration.

Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, R-Blountville, who is Senate speaker, said leaders have raised concerns about further cuts to mental health and mental retardation. The state has some $750 million in its Rainy Day Fund and additional dollars in a TennCare reserve.

“It’s going to be hard to explain to constituent how we cut the care for the mentally ill and cut the care for children’s services when we have all this money sitting over here in the bank,” Lt. Gov. Ramsey said.

Department of Children’s Services faces problems too. The budget calls for closing the department’s nine group homes, although the original budget provided that one-time stimulus funding would still be provided through the 2009-10 budget year.

The state intends to charge counties that are “over-committing” children to state custody, putting an estimated $7.5 million burden on the counties.