March 3, 2010

Mental-health professionals wary of budget-cutting plan

By Susan M. Cover

AUGUSTA — The state's mental health system cannot absorb the cuts proposed in Gov. John Baldacci's supplemental budget, the head of Maine's chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness said Thursday.

Carol Carothers said a 10 percent across-the-board cut to the state's Medicaid funding would mean a loss of about $90 million to mental health programs.

Of that, $32 million is state money and the rest is federal matching money, said Brenda Harvey, commissioner of the Department of Health and Human Services.

Carothers said the state has cut $48 million in mental health spending in the last four years, and the additional reduction would send more people to hospitals and jails.

''If you're really ill, you end up in jail,'' Carothers said. ''Why we would continue to reduce spending is foolish policy.''

The Legislature's Appropriations Committee will hold a public hearing on the proposed cuts Wednesday as it continues to review Baldacci's proposal to cut $438 million from the state's $5.8 billion budget.

Carothers and other mental health advocates called a news conference Thursday at the alliance's headquarters in Augusta to release an analysis of the proposed cuts.

Cumberland County Sheriff Mark Dion attended the briefing, and said police are not trained or equipped to handle additional calls from people who are in mental health crisis.

He called it a ''responsibility shift'' from mental health professionals to law enforcement.

''Once again, you're going to ask police to operate under some sort of medical model,'' he said. ''We're not therapists. For us, a mental health crisis can lead to a tragic outcome.''

Harvey said the DHHS proposed the cut to help hit its funding target from the governor's office. The 10 percent cut to the Medicaid program would affect not only the mental health community, but nursing homes, assisted-living facilities and private nonmedical institutions, she said.

''Is it something we look forward to doing? No,'' she said. ''The state has a revenue shortfall and we think we have put a reasonable proposal forward.''

Rather than eliminate entire programs, Harvey said, the department has decided to ask the private sector to continue to offer services with less reimbursement.

But rather than cutting programs that don't work, the across-the-board approach will hurt everyone, said Juliana L'Heureux, executive director of the Maine Association of Mental Health Services.

''This newest 10 percent cut is devastating,'' she said. ''It's unfair to clients.''

Carothers said she will ask lawmakers to freeze cuts to mental health and form a commission to find ''reform that actually saves money, rather than shift costs to others.''

She also expressed concern that the budget proposal would limit the number of therapy visits to 18 a year. There is now no limit, and she said people with severe and persistent mental illness often go once a week.

Harvey said visits on average are now 10 to 12 a year. ''This allows the majority of people to get what they need.''

The debate will continue Wednesday, when dozens of people are expected to testify on the proposed cuts. The hearing is set to begin at 9 a.m. in Room 228 of the State House.


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