State budget cuts put mentally ill people at risk, detailed records say

The Georgia's agency that tackles substance abuse and other mental health problems proposes to cut $21.1 million from core services designed to stave off costly hospital stays. Photo courtesy Flickr Commons.

Georgia’s agency charged with protecting people with mental illness reports the $21.1 million in budget cuts it plans to make to its community service boards could land more people in the local emergency room.

The state’s Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities detailed its belt-tightening plan in response to a Georgia Recorder open records request, one of five agencies that responded in a timely way. More than half a dozen other agencies have yet to respond and other department heads may be complying with Gov. Brian Kemp’s earlier directive to withhold specific spending plans from legislators.

Lawmakers, though, have insisted on receiving more details. They have given departments until today to hand over detailed explanations on staff and service cuts. 

Of the five state agencies that responded to open records requests, the one which oversees state-run mental health programs in Georgia showed the most severe cuts to core services and staff.

The department proposes to cut $21.1 million from core services administered by local community service boards that aim to stave off costly hospital stays for mentally ill people. With smaller budgets, those boards could have trouble handling a growing demand for mental health services, creating a risk for “impacting increased suicidality, substance use disorders and demands on crisis services,” the budget plan says.

The department also proposes to trim $16.3 million from the state’s housing voucher program and $1.6 million from a program aimed at increasing employment for mentally ill people. Those services are central to a settlement agreement the department negotiated with the U.S. Department of Justice in 2010 to curtail how often mentally ill people end up in emergency rooms and psychiatric wards. In August, a court-ordered federal monitor warned core services need more funding, not less, for the department to meet the settlement’s terms.

Sixty-two staff positions would be eliminated at five state hospitals where most of the department’s roughly 5,000-member workforce is employed. Staff working in about a third of those cut jobs would shift to vacant positions, while the rest would find new spots in the department “if possible,” the budget plan says.

Young Tae, an attorney with the department, said in a response to the Georgia Recorder’s open records request this week that the budget plan was “prepared by programmatic and operational personnel from an advocacy perspective” and represents “the least impactful way in which the budgetary targets could be met.” The department otherwise declined comment.

State Rep. Katie Dempsey, a Rome Republican who chairs the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Human Resources, said details in the department’s spending reduction plan were news to her when she saw it Thursday. Dempsey says she’ll wait to hear what the governor has to say about the proposed cuts before taking any stand.

“I would hope that after study of the document, that there are ways for us to come together and make sure the needs of our state are met,” Dempsey said. “I certainly think (the cuts) impact our delivery of services, without a doubt.”

A litigation director for the nonprofit mental health advocacy group Georgia Advocacy Office said reductions the department is proposing could have a “dramatic impact.” The state can expect increases in emergency room visits, homelessness and episodes of self-harm if the cuts took effect, she said.

“They’ve spelled it out pretty clearly: People are going to be harmed if we do this,” Orland said. “It’s not at all subtle.”

The documents provided by the behavioral health agency and other departments contain the kind of detailed information lawmakers normally see each year at the outset of the legislative session. Lawmakers with budget-writing responsibilities also often request additional information from agencies when they want to dig deeper into the specifics of an expenditure or a funding request.

But this year, the process was thrown off its usual rhythm when the governor ordered state agencies to cut 4% from this year’s budget and 6% next year in anticipation of sluggish revenue collections. That prompted House Speaker David Ralston to call on lawmakers to begin work on the budget early.

Kemp, though, forbade agency leaders from participating and instructed them to send their reduced budget plans to the governor’s office.

This year’s state budget cycle started July 1 and the reductions are supposed to be effective Oct. 1.

State Rep. Sam Watson, a Moultrie Republican who chairs the appropriations committee that oversees the state Department of Natural Resources, the Department of Driver Services and other agencies, said lawmakers are still mostly left out of the process.

“I haven’t had time to talk to any agency heads,” Watson said Thursday. “I didn’t want to put them in that position either. Their boss has told them to do something and I respect that.”

Watson said he remains hopeful that state revenues will pick up and the need for severe cuts aren’t coming. But as a farmer in southwest Georgia where damage from 2018’s Hurricane Michael lingers, his optimism has limits. The state economist has said there is a “fifty-fifty” chance of a “mild recession” next year.

“Agriculture is our No. 1 industry,” Watson said. “And if your No. 1 industry is suffering, you’re going to see lost revenue somewhere.”

Other departments responding to Georgia Recorder open records requests this week showed staffing reductions and cuts to vacant positions.  

The Department of Corrections proposes eliminating administrative and trainer positions next year to save roughly $52 million. 

The Department of Public Health plans to cut 12 administrative positions. The department also plans to withdraw $12 million in grants given to county health services and trim $1.9 million from a contract that provides ultrasound testing at several pregnancy resource centers.

The Department of Community Affairs and the Department of Education responded to the open records request and propose relatively small reductions.

Deputy Editor Jill Nolin contributed to this article.

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.

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