Senate budget cuts mental health spending

lbonner@newsobserver.comMay 27, 2013 

There’s no money in the Senate budget to keep open a residential school for children with mental or behavioral disorders.

And it gives less money to local government mental health offices.

The budget, which passed the Senate last week, cuts the state’s mental health spending by 3 percent, from its current $697 million to $676 million. Gov. Pat McCrory’s proposed budget would have spending increase to $714 million.

Advocates for the mentally ill are now looking to House lawmakers, who will take up the budget next week, to shore up mental health funding. They have a rally planned for Wednesday to convince House budget writers to help pay for residents to stay in group homes. Existing funding ends June 30, and the Senate budget offered no broad solution to the money problem.

Supporters of the Wright School, a residential school for children with mental or behavioral disorders, have started an email campaign aimed at House budget writers to keep it open. The Senate budget proposes closing it to save $2.7 million a year. The Wright School regularly turns up on the state chopping block, but wins reprieve after reprieve. Spruce Pine Sen. Ralph Hise, who was in charge of the health and human services budget, said costs are too high for a school that enrolls 24 students at a time.

The Senate budget also puts more controls on mental health drugs, requiring doctors to get permission when they prescribe them. Senate budget writers said more control will prevent misuse, but others say the change could be harmful to patients.

“It’s already a challenge for people to stay on their drugs,” said Ann Akland, a mental health advocate in Wake County. “It’s going to put another wrench in the works.”

The Senate budget largely sticks with the spending plan dictated by decisions in previous years to open new state psychiatric hospitals and change how community mental health is delivered, paid for and managed.

The budget includes $11.5 million to outfit the new Broughton Hospital under construction in Morganton, and gives the hospital $3.5 million to bring in 19 more patients.

In addition, the state and local governments will have an extra $9 million to buy space in local hospitals for short-term treatment of mentally ill patients. The money will bring local beds under contract from 141 to 186. The hospital contracts are considered an effective strategy for treating patients close to home rather than in state psychiatric hospitals.

The budget cuts about $15 million from the local government mental health offices. The savings were anticipated when the state in 2011 changed the oversight and funding of government-funded community mental health.

But some of these new mental health offices are struggling. One of the original 11 offices is going to fold in a few months, and Health and Human Services Secretary Aldona Wos has said repeatedly that others are in trouble. Senate Minority Leader Martin Nesbitt, a Democrat from Asheville, doesn’t see the sense in taking more money from the locals.

“They are once again dismantling the local system,” he said.

Hise, the budget writer, said the budget request for the local offices came from Gov. Pat McCrory and the Department of Health and Human Services. The Senate thought it best to take the recommendation and continue with the established plan for administrative cuts, Hise said.

But mental health advocates said the local offices could use a break. The local office that overseas and pays for mental health services in Wake and Durham counties has a shortfall in its administrative budget and has had to leave critical jobs unfilled, said Akland, a member of its board of directors.

“To hamstring them with more budget cuts is just terrible,” she said. “There are just more and more and more challenges for the mental health system.”

Bonner: 919-829-4821

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