Hoar Letter

Published 12:00 am Friday, December 4, 2009

Proposed mental health cuts could force enormous expense to counties

As an employee of the Mississippi?Department of Mental Health, I am deeply concerned by Governor Haley Barbour’s recommendations regarding the closure of essential DMH services to balance the state budget.

My fears are not for my own job — even if it came to that — but for the children and adults with mental illness or intellectual disabilities, and their families, who will suffer so greatly if these recommendations become reality during the next legislative session.

The Governor has proposed closing four Department of Mental Health facilities and six of the state’s seven mental health crisis centers. This could result in savings of $18 million in the next fiscal year and $10 million in 2012. But the cost to Mississippi’s hard-won progress in serving citizens with mental illness and intellectual disabilities could be catastrophic.

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Prior to the opening of DMH crisis intervention centers in Batesville, Brookhaven, Cleveland, Corinth, Grenada, Laurel, and Newton, individuals with behaviors associated with uncontrolled mental illness were commonly held in county jails for up to 30 days while awaiting a bed at one of two state psychiatric hospitals at Whitfield and Meridian. These individuals, among Mississippi’s most vulnerable citizens, were housed with (and as) criminals. The crisis intervention centers, community-based outreaches of two smaller short-term psychiatric hospitals also opened by DMH in Tupelo and Long Beach (which are also on the Governor’s list for closure) reduced jail stays to less than two days statewide. They have provided vital psychiatric services quickly and efficiently.

It seems a huge step backward — and back in time at least 10 years — to close the very services which made DMH a more efficient and proactive service provider for citizens with mental illness. Patients housed in jail could again become victims of predatory criminals, and will be an enormous expense for county governments.

Governor Barbour proposes “community based services” for these individuals. Is that what he means? And if not, how will those services be funded if not by the state?

Making the issue even more dangerous is the fact that state general fund appropriations are also plummeting at state facilities serving individuals with intellectual and related developmental disabilities. The North Mississippi Regional Center, where I am employed, serves 280 individuals on its Oxford campus, 200 more in licensed community homes, and more than 2,500 through community-based services across the northern 23 counties of Mississippi.

Approximately three-quarters of the Center’s annual budget is comprised of “special funds” or Medicaid match dollars. General funds, appropriated by the Legislature, fund many other essential non-Medicaid services. Programs dependent on that appropriation include NMRC’s community-based early intervention services for children from birth to three, work activity centers for adults, day services for adults, and alternative living arrangements including traditional group homes and supported living apartments.

By the end of this fiscal year, NMRC’s general fund budget will be cut by seven percent or more and budget projections for next year look far worse. If true, some services will be forced to decline or cease.

This is not merely a question of money. It is a question of right and wrong. I ask, on behalf of those who cannot ask for themselves, that members of the Mississippi House of Representatives and Mississippi Senate search their hearts before casting a vote on these very dangerous measures. Tens of thousands of children and adults served by DMH are at their mercy.


Tom Hoar

College Hill