NC mental health cuts hurting the vulnerable

One in five Americans experience a mental illness each year, yet fewer than half receive treatment. Because N.C. legislators made a $262 million budget cut last session, even fewer North Carolinians with mental health conditions, intellectual/developmental disabilities and substance use disorders will have access to services.

About $111 million has already been cut with the other $152 million planned for this year. Yet each month, these state funds support 26,000 uninsured or under-insured North Carolinians seeking services.

Eight regional behavioral health care organizations manage funds for MH/IDD/SUD services, and a 2015 N.C. DHHS survey showed that 92 percent of people receiving services were satisfied overall. Most importantly, the number of North Carolinians receiving services has increased while the overall cost of care has gone down. North Carolina’s public managed behavioral health care system has provided budget predictability and saved hundreds of millions of Medicaid dollars for our state.

However, the coming $152 million cut will stop the innovation of new services in its tracks. Most troubling, people who are receiving services now will lose them.

North Carolinians have been promised a future with real, local solutions for those with a mental health diagnosis, disabilities or substance use disorders. These dollars will create programs for whole person or integrated care, expand crisis care for children and provide services that keep people out of institutional care and jails. However, without funding, these projects and the well-being of thousands of our citizens are threatened.

There are 10,000 North Carolinians with intellectual and developmental disabilities on a waiting list for Medicaid services. They would be hardest hit. While waiting for a Medicaid “slot,” many of these individuals receive services paid for with state funds – services that will have to be cut.

Over the past few years, lawmakers have been looking for viable, local alternatives for those with a mental health diagnosis, disability or substance use disorders going into emergency departments in crisis situations. Approximately 40 percent of these individuals are uninsured and underinsured. There are plans across the state to establish youth and adult crisis services that provide a short-term residential treatment alternative to hospitalization. But without funding, these critical services will not go forward. For North Carolinians who lose their services or cannot get services, already crowded emergency departments will be their only option in a crisis.

We are asking legislators to restore state funding for these services. And we call upon the public to let lawmakers know how this cut will affect them, their families and their communities. Help us make sure that the most vulnerable children and adults in North Carolina receive the care that they need.

Mary A. Hooper, ACSW, is executive director of the N.C. Council of Community Programs.