Published: Oct 24, 2009 02:59 AM
Modified: Oct 23, 2009 12:59 PM
Advocates for people with mental illness, developmental disability or addiction have called for a special session of the General Assembly to prevent a collapse of the system that is supposed to provide services to some of the most vulnerable people in the state.
It is an extraordinary demand, but these are extraordinary times for people with a mental illness or disability. Dave Richard from the ARC of North Carolina said the total cuts in funding for services in some communities may be as much as 35-45 percent.
The ARC is a member of the coalition, a group of 35 advocacy and service organizations that called for the special session. John Tote from the Mental Health Association correctly described the crisis as a moral issue and an economic one, and predicted that the budget cuts could mean that 10,000-20,000 people who provide services could lose their jobs.
The cuts could also mean the end of 26-year-old Kelly Woodall's independence and her academic career. Woodall, who has cerebral palsy, lives at home and is working on her master's degree in clinical psychology.
That may all change because of state budget cuts to Medicaid that could force her into a nursing home to receive the care she needs. Woodall told her story at a Raleigh news conference and said she should be able to live in her own home.
That was the point of mental-health reform, after all, to treat people in their local communities instead of institutions.
The coalition's call for a special session made a difference before it was issued. The night before the news conference, Gov. Beverly Perdue announced she was shifting $15 million to offset the additional five percent budget cuts to community services made after the General Assembly adjourned.
It's a start but not nearly enough considering the $500 million state lawmakers slashed from services in the budget they passed in August.
The advocates said those cuts are just now beginning to be felt by people like Kelly Woodall. State Secretary of Health and Human Services Lanier Cansler says the department has implemented only a third of the budget cuts so far. The other two-thirds will come in the next 90 days.
Even more ominous are some reports that state revenues are coming in below projections, prompting speculation that Perdue might have to order another round of cuts to keep the budget balanced. That means even less money for community services for people with a disability, mental illness, or addiction. Richard says at that point the system may actually collapse, ending vital services for thousands of people.
The coalition asked Perdue to require the Department of Commerce to track job losses in the mental-health arena, which seems like the least they can do. They also want more emergency funding and a suspension of some costly administrative procedures during the crisis.
Perdue is off to China on an economic development trip, a fact not lost on the mental-health advocates, though they were careful not to assign blame for the current problems.
But somebody clearly missed the mark in the General Assembly or the Perdue administration, either by not realizing the devastation the budget cuts would cause in local communities, or realizing it and simply throwing up their hands and ignoring it.
Either way, people are suffering now and things are about to get worse.
Chris Fitzsimon is Executive Director of N.C. Policy Watch.