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Cuts could eliminate mental health program

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State health officials said Monday they would have to eliminate the entire program to help those in mental health crisis if their funding is cut any further.

Interim Health Director Will Humble said Monday that the request by Gov. Jan Brewer to find ways to cut 15 percent from his operating budget comes on top of prior reductions. Those have come largely by trimming public health programs, resulting in everything from reducing follow-up home visits of premature infants to eliminating funding for children’s vaccines.

With those public health funds virtually gone, Humble said the only place left to slash to come up with $68 million is in programs for mental health. And one of the changes he said will have the most effect would abolish Arizona’s behavioral health crisis system.

Humble said that means no people on the other end of phone lines to answer calls and, potentially more significant, no mobile teams to respond when they get called by police.

“In this new scenario, they would either just walk away, maybe take them to a shelter if they were homeless,” said Laura Nelson, the health department’s acting deputy director for behavioral health. And in the worst-case scenario, the police would have to take the person to a hospital emergency room “where they would then need to be screened and stabilized.”

Humble said the current system handles about 10,600 calls a month statewide, with mobile teams going out to work side-by-side with police in close to a third of those situations.

The report from the health department is the latest in a series of responses demanded by Gov. Jan Brewer of how agencies would deal with a 15 percent cut in their budgets. Brewer said the exercise is necessary to show the effects if lawmakers seek to balance the budget with spending cuts alone. The reports for most other agencies were available last week.

That isn’t the only change that Humble said would be necessary.

He said the cuts, if demanded by lawmakers, would mean the state would no longer provide other mental health services for those who do not qualify for Medicaid. That would eliminate help for about 14,700 adults with serious mental illness, 11,700 with general mental health diseases, 6,300 with substance abuse problems and 4,600 children with some sort of behavioral health need.

And another 2,685 adults with behavioral health problems whose income is above the federal poverty level would lose their rental subsidies.

“The elimination of the supported housing program will result in the eviction of many, if not most of these persons, leading to increased homelessness,” Humble said.

But there are other implications.

Nelson noted the state is under court order to do more for those who are mentally ill. That follows a ruling by a judge that Arizona was not complying with laws to provide adequate care for those who are ill but not residing at the state hospital.

She said the state risks violating those orders if it makes the proposed cuts but said there is no where else for the money to come.

The Department of Economic Security, in its own list of anticipated cuts also released Monday, said it would have to eliminate various programs ranging from help for grandparents who care for children to programs which are designed to identify and help infants who have developmental disabilities.

© 2009 Freedom Communications / Arizona. Displayed by permission. All rights reserved.

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