For The Record

Georgia behavioral health services strained by budget woes, pandemic fallout

By: - August 26, 2021 8:12 pm

Judy Fitzgerald, commissioner of the state Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities, said Thursday the agency is “extremely challenged” as the delta variant drives another surge in Georgia. Screenshot of DBHDD livestream

Officials with the state Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities say the agency is feeling the squeeze as more people turn to their services and a pandemic-weary workforce eyes lower-stress, higher-paid opportunities elsewhere.

But even so, the state agency will submit a spending plan for next year to the governor that – as requested – will include no increased spending.

“We are not able to compete for or retain critical staff resources,” said Jeff Minor, who is the agency’s deputy commissioner. “We had difficulty in the regular environment marketplace. In COVID, it has really challenged us.”

Minor told the department’s board during a virtual meeting Thursday the governor’s no-new-spending guidance is “hard to swallow.”

Agency officials, though, sounded a somewhat optimistic note that they would be able negotiate exceptions to the flat-spending rule as the state budget takes shape.

“We understand every state agency is in some kind of dilemma, and everybody has needs and everybody is coming with their hand out,” Minor said. “And they are not in a position at this point to commit because there’s so many uncertainties in the system.”

Budget season is underway as the more easily transmissible delta variant of COVID-19 drives a new surge in cases that is straining Georgia’s health care system. The state recorded 7,900 new daily cases Thursday.

Gov. Brian Kemp’s guidance to keep spending at this year’s levels also comes as Georgia is experiencing a windfall from rising state revenues and massive amounts of federal coronavirus relief money.

State agencies are finalizing their budget requests now and are due Wednesday to the governor’s Office of Planning and Budget. Kemp will unveil his proposed state budget in January to lawmakers, who will then want to leave their own mark on how state dollars are spent.

No new spending also means no additional funding requested for waiver services for people with developmental disabilities in the next budget. Advocates have tried to increase pressure on state officials to set aside more funding to serve more people on the waiting list, which now includes more than 7,300 people, without reducing services to others.

But agency officials pointed to the pandemic’s strain on their workforce as being the most critical issue during a presentation Thursday.

The agency’s hospital staff has shrunk by about 750 employees over the last 18 months. A no-bid contract with Jackson Healthcare, which is costing the state hundreds of millions of dollars, has helped the state facilities get by during the pandemic with about 400 workers on loan.

The state is also seeking federal aid to help address the workforce shortage, though providers worry that money will arrive too late.

And the resurgence of COVID-19 in recent weeks has only made the situation worse, said Judy Fitzgerald, commissioner of the department.

“We really are at the most difficult point of the pandemic in terms of our workforce and challenges we face, most particularly in our five state hospitals,” Fitzgerald said Thursday. “But these are also true in our community crisis system, as well as community-based providers all around the state who we are hearing from on a very regular basis about the workforce challenges.

“We are extremely challenged,” she added. “And in the face of this challenge, we are taking every measure possible to continue to keep the doors of our public safety net open.”

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Jill Nolin
Jill Nolin

Jill Nolin has spent nearly 15 years reporting on state and local government in four states, focusing on policy and political stories and tracking public spending. She has spent the last five years chasing stories in the halls of Georgia’s Gold Dome, earning recognition for her work showing the impact of rising opioid addiction on the state’s rural communities. She is a graduate of Troy University.