Proposed budget cuts a setback for state mental health safety net programs

By: - September 16, 2019 8:47 am

A dispute over an annotated compilation of Georgia’s laws was at the center of a U.S. Supreme Court copyright argument on Monday. John McCosh/Georgia Recorder

Key services for Georgians with mental disabilities struggling to keep a roof over their heads are at risk as part of about $56 million in cuts to the state’s mental health department over the next two years.

Those cuts figure into budget reductions across all state government agencies that Gov. Brian Kemp ordered last month.

The proposed cuts might complicate efforts to reduce hospital visits and stays for people with mental illnesses and developmental disabilities, according to mental health advocates. Georgia’s treatment of people with mental illnesses is under federal scrutiny and requires the state’s Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities to send fewer patients to institutions supported community housing programs.

Proposed cuts for next year of $44 million would affect a swath of services the department manages designed to stave off crises for people with mental and developmental disabilities and keep them in housing, according to a department presentation this month provided by Young Tae of the department’s legal office. That includes residential assistance, educational and employment support, and money for the state’s housing voucher program. Another roughly $9.5 million would be cut for support services at five state hospitals run by the department, plus a $2.3 million reduction for administration.

The department’s budget cuts come in response to the governor’s call for state agencies to trim their budgets by 4% this year and 6% next year, said state the department’s commissioner, Judy Fitzgerald. Her staff “will be working closely” with Kemp to “strike the balance” between providing critical mental health services and cutting costs, she said in a statement.

“(The department) has embraced Governor Kemp’s charge to seek efficiencies within our service delivery system, and we believe our budget proposal is responsive,” Fitzgerald said by email.

One local mental health advocate expressed concern about the department’s planned cuts in light of a new report last month from a federal monitor that found the state’s crisis-intervention and transitional housing efforts are insufficient despite reforms in recent years. The report, written by federal Independent Reviewer Elizabeth Jones, warned cutting funds for mental health services in Georgia could “present serious obstacles” for the state to comply with federal oversight requirements.

“It’s not fluff,” said Devon Orland, litigation director for the nonprofit Georgia Advocacy Office. “It’s core services that the agency is supposed to be providing” that would be cut.

On top of the cuts, Orland said, the department’s budget presentation shows a shift of about $13 million from those core services to “adult crisis services.” Orland worries the funding shift could mean the department is placing more emphasis on responding to mental health crises rather than on crisis prevention. That would run counter to the mandates of a federal settlement on mental health services the state agreed to in 2010, she said.

Focusing more on core services like in-home care and direct intervention than crisis response is a top goal for the state’s largest community service board, Highland Rivers Health, the board’s CEO Melanie Dallas said in a recent interview. But Highland Rivers’ funding for those core services is already tight, Dallas said. The community service organization could reach nearly triple the amount of people than it currently does if more money was available.

Other programs meant to reduce jail and prison recidivism for thousands of people with mental illnesses are also facing budget cuts worrisome to advocates. The Governor’s Office of Transition, Support and Reentry, which provides post-release assistance to former inmates, is set to lose half of its $7.1 million budget next year under proposed cuts. The federal monitor’s recent report estimated about one-fourth of the state’s jail population consists of people who have serious and persistent mental illnesses and risk returning to jail without support services.

The office declined to comment on the budget cuts through spokesman Jamelle Washington.

“That would clearly jeopardize the (federal) settlement agreement” if cuts to inmate transition programs affected mentally ill people, Orland said. “It really is just quite frustrating.”

State lawmakers plan to hold hearings later this year on the proposed cuts, which would shrink the state’s $27.5 billion budget by hundreds of millions of dollars, according to a list of the reductions compiled by the governor’s budget office. The department’s proposed cuts in the coming months before final decisions are made, said state Rep. Katie Dempsey, a Rome Republican who chaired a House study committee on mental illness in 2016. She said the department’s proposed reductions are “fairly broad,” but would help offset financial pain should the economy take a downturn.

“I think the agency did what it was asked to do and they were responsive to the request,” Dempsey said Friday. “I’m certainly committed to continuing to work with the governor and state agencies to make sure that should we need to make some of these, that they are careful and meaningful and that we maximize spending in ways that serve the most impacted.”

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Beau Evans
Beau Evans

Beau Evans has covered local and state government and breaking news in New Orleans and California. He’s reported on immigration issues, the threat of rising seas to coastal areas, public safety and hurricanes. At The Times-Picayune in New Orleans, Evans detailed the critical role government plays to ensure that people in a community have access to clean water and other public needs. In 2018, his investigative reporting revealed top officials at New Orleans’ cash-poor water utility dealt themselves huge raises, prompting several to resign. Evans’ prior reporting was in West Marin north of San Francisco for The Point Reyes Light. Evans is an Atlanta native who graduated with honors from The Lovett School and is an honors graduate of North Carolina’s Davidson College. Beau was with the Georgia Recorder until January 4th, 2020.