Service providers taking stock of mental health, substance abuse cuts

Posted Dec. 28, 2012, at 6:55 p.m.
Last modified Dec. 28, 2012, at 9:22 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — Agencies that provide services to people with mental health and substance abuse problems started to assess the impact Friday of $13.4 million in cuts to the state’s health and human services budget as part of a $35.5 million curtailment order issued this week by Gov. Paul LePage.

The cuts hit health and human services and local school aid — the two areas that account for the largest portion of state spending — hardest. The curtailment is a temporary measure designed to keep the state budget in balance amid revenue collections that have fallen short of earlier projections.

The $13.4 million in Department of Health and Human Services cuts include $2.2 million in funding reductions for state contracts with providers that serve people with substance abuse problems and mental illness.

Bonnie Smith, DHHS’ deputy commissioner for programs, said the department tried to find as many areas to cut as possible without eliminating services.

“That process went on in depth for many, many long days and nights. None of this was taken lightly,” she said. “We’re doing everything we can to make sure that services are not interrupted, that we’re not having people without services who are in need.”

DHHS booked many of its savings by leaving vacant positions unfilled and by tallying up savings from several contracts with service providers this year that have come in under budget. But the cuts to mental health and substance abuse service contracts will have an impact, said Guy Cousins, director of mental health and substance abuse services at DHHS.

“What we’re going to have to do is to try to help providers mitigate that to the best of their ability,” he said.

For most providers, Cousins said, the curtailment will cut about 5 percent of state contract funds they haven’t yet received for this budget year, which ends June 30.

“It’s the services that help support people as they move into the community or are already in the community and trying to build recovery supports around them,” Cousins said. “Strategically, we have to work as best we can to help providers continue providing support to the level that’s possible with the funding they have.”

That level of funding has continued to diminish in recent years, Cousins said, as mental health and substance abuse service providers have been affected by previous rounds of state budget cuts.

Service providers on Friday didn’t yet know the size of the cuts they might sustain or the exact services they would affect. Cousins said his office is finalizing those details and will send them to providers next week.

Greg Disy, CEO of the Aroostook Mental Health Center, said the cuts likely would affect people receiving services who don’t have health insurance coverage because they don’t qualify for government-funded Medicaid coverage and can’t afford private insurance.

For people with mental health issues, Disy said, those services help them find and maintain housing, develop independent living skills and find jobs. For people with substance abuse problems, the services include access to outpatient addiction treatment.

The Aroostook Mental Health Center, based in Caribou, serves nearly 5,000 clients at 20 locations in Aroostook, Washington and Hancock counties. “These cuts mean an impact on the most vulnerable citizens that we serve,” said Jamie Owens, the center’s marketing and development director.

At Maine Mental Health Connections in Bangor, which works with adults suffering from mental health and substance abuse issues, a cut to its contract with DHHS would be difficult to absorb, said Angie Brown, who runs the organization’s food pantry and social club programs.

“Every time something is taken away, it affects people in a lot of different ways,” she said. “You’re going to see a rise in transients. You’re going to see a rise in the homeless. I don’t know what they expect for these people to do.”

Maine Mental Health Connections works with about 1,300 adults in the Bangor area, connecting them with jobs and helping them develop independent living skills, Brown said.

Within the Department of Health and Human Services, programs that fall under the Office of Child and Family Services will absorb about a third of the department’s $13.4 million in cuts, said Therese Cahill-Low, the office’s director.

The department will cut $1.4 million from an account that provides subsidies to families that adopt children from state care. Most families that adopt children in state care receive a federal subsidy; the $1.4 million state cut will affect the third of adoptive families who receive the subsidy from state — rather than federal — funds.

The reduction will affect about 1,250 children who are living with 850 families, Cahill-Low said. They’ll see a 50 percent cut to their subsidy during April, May and June, the last three months of the budget year. The maximum subsidy, Cahill-Low said, is $26.25 daily per child.

“We really looked at where our priorities lie in serving the most vulnerable,” Cahill-Low said. Children who have already been adopted are “not as vulnerable as children who are currently in [state] care.”

In addition, she said, children who have been adopted from the state foster care system will continue to receive health insurance through MaineCare, the state’s Medicaid program.

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