Mental health advocates rally to fight potential state budget cuts

by Keith Barber

Tammy Banther speaks about her reliance on mental health services offered the Mental Health Association in Forsyth County. (photo by Keith T. Barber)

Robin Huffman, executive director of the NC Psychiatric Association, described the impact of potential budget cuts to the state’s mental health system during a town hall meeting on the campus of Forsyth Tech on April 7.

Huffman shared the results of a survey conducted by the Coalition — a statewide group of 40 organizations that advocate on behalf of North Carolinians living with mental illness, developmental disabilities or the disease of addiction — that indicated more than 314,000 state residents receive mental health services. The survey of 115 local agencies also indicated that if the NC General Assembly makes proposed cuts to health and human services, nearly 22,000 jobs would be lost.

“[Mental health] is the economy,” Huffman said. “If we were talking about losing this many jobs anywhere in our state, you can bet there would be a crisis; there would be headlines all over the place. We know the newspaper stories when 200 jobs are lost by a plant closing. Suppose we lost 22,000 jobs in our economy? That’s what we’re talking about here.”

Republican-controlled subcommittees in the NC General Assembly have targeted Gov. Beverly Perdue’s proposed health and human services budget for more than $591 million in cuts, according to the General Assembly’s Fiscal Research Division.

Huffman said the General Assembly cannot solve the state’s projected $2.4 billion budget shortfall by simply making cuts to vital mental health services.

“How do we make sure that closing a service here doesn’t mean that we’ve got to put more money into our jail system, our prison system?” Huffman asked. “How do we make sure that [cuts to] our community service in this area does mean that our community hospital gets put out of business because of all the people that are in the emergency room?” The Coalition advocates a balanced approach to the current budget crisis by sticking to a set of core principles, Huffman said. Saving jobs, seeking business efficiencies, protecting services that bring in funds from federal sources, and pairing reductions in community services to reductions in stateoperated healthcare facilities represent the approach of the Coalition to the current budget crisis.

For North Carolinians living with mental illness, the possibility of draconian cuts adds insult to injury, Huffman said. During the 2009-2010 legislative session, state lawmakers slashed $155 million from the Division of Mental Health, Developmental Disabilities and Substance Abuse Services budget, cut $20 million from state service funds for mental illness, and cut $500 million from Medicaid. As a result of these deep cuts, state residents living with mental illness, developmental disabilities and substance abuse issues lost support services, access to necessary medical treatments, quality of life, independence and in some cases, their lives, Huffman said.

After Huffman’s presentation, audience members took turns sharing personal stories about their experiences with the state’s mental health system. Tammy Banther, a former employee at Forsyth Medical Center, said she suffered a severe stroke in 2009 and lost her job as a result. Banther said her $945 disability check doesn’t cover her monthly health insurance costs. She said she’s benefited greatly by participating in one of the seven support groups sponsored by the Mental Health Association in Forsyth County, and said she doesn’t know what she would do without those services.

“Don’t cut these services,” Banther said. “I beg you all, don’t cut these services.”

Andy Hagler, executive director of Mental Health Association in Forsyth County, said the agency does not receive direct state fund ing but would be hard hit by government cuts to mental health.

“We’ll have the ripple effect because when people are cut from their services that are state funded it starts rippling down to us,” Hagler said. “If people’s services are cut, they call us to find out where they can find comparable services. With the support groups we run, they are free but with cuts to services, we could experience a capacity issue. That’s where we’ll feel the ripple effect. When cuts are made, we don’t always feel the immediate impact, but people will wait until they reach the crisis stage before they contact us and that places a heavy strain on our limited resources.”