March 3, 2010

Mental health advocates: Cuts forcing costly options


— By . COVER

Kennebec Journal

AUGUSTA — Advocates for mental health treatment told lawmakers Wednesday that cuts to state funding will hurt people who need help by forcing them into more expensive places such as jails and emergency rooms.

For the second day in a row, hundreds of people gathered at the State House to protest Gov. John Baldacci's plan to fill a $438 million budget shortfall, which includes cuts to human services, education and municipalities.

Baldacci has said he will not raise taxes to close the gap, but several people continued to call on lawmakers to make that part of budget considerations. At a news conference, mental health groups called for a 1-cent increase in the sales tax to help mitigate the cuts.

Elaine Ecker, executive director of the Consumer Council System of Maine, said the Legislature must act even if it's ''unpopular'' or ''politically risky.''

Ecker said that, among the cuts, a proposed $282,500 reduction to transportation subsidies would hurt consumers who have to get to appointments. Also, the National Alliance on Mental Illness, which provides family support and respite services, faces a $275,000 cut.

During Wednesday's public hearing before the Appropriations Committee, one of the most controversial proposals proved to be an 18-visit limit on mental health counseling sessions for adults.

''There is no way 18 sessions a year, for someone with a chronic mental illness, is going to work,'' said Annette Farrington, a counselor who has a daughter with mental illness. ''You can't say, 'You've had your 18 sessions. I can't meet with you.' It puts my license in jeopardy.''

Health and Human Services Commissioner Brenda Harvey said 75 percent of the people in the MaineCare program need fewer than 15 visits, so that's how officials decided to set the limit.

For children, there is a limit of 18 visits but the state can grant approval if more are needed, Harvey said.

Legislators asked Harvey several questions about the limit for adults and how the state is evaluating the effectiveness of certain programs.

Under questioning, after two days of public testimony by people who fear the loss of services, Harvey choked up as she tried to answer the questions.

''We're giving you our best thinking,'' she said. ''You will make changes. In the scope of what we pay for, there are no fluff programs left to cut.''

She said that when deciding where to cut, her department preserved programs that provide food, housing and lifeline support.

''We cannot sustain, unless you find revenue, what we do at DHHS,'' she said. ''My staff have spent their careers side by side with these people who are testifying today. It's painful.''

Harvey said the DHHS considered eliminating entire programs, rather than making smaller cuts to many areas, but decided that preserving some services was better than offering none.

''It's hurtful we are all in this place,'' she said.

The committee expects to take testimony today on proposed cuts to the education portion of the budget. Human services and education make up the largest parts of the state budget, and are subject to the biggest cuts.


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