Proposed budget cuts could disrupt mental health services

Posted: Friday, March 22, 2002

Proposed funding cuts may force officials to place people who attempt suicide and other emotionally ill people in jail or hospital emergency rooms because treatment beds won't be available, says a local mental health care provider.

The House has passed a budget that reduced community mental health funds by about 3 percent of the program's current budget, or about $100,000. Another $327,000 was cut in psychiatric emergency services, said Rep. Bill Hudson, a Juneau Republican.

"Mental illness is one of the worst hands that life can deal you," said Pat Murphy, clinical director at the Juneau Alliance for Mental Health Inc., which served 313 people last month.

JAMHI administrators are concerned that their clients might be squeezed out of treatment by the proposed budget cuts, which now go to the Senate.

"If the budget as currently structured were to pass, most mental health services in Alaska would be eliminated," he said.

More than 9,000 people who had periodic mental health problems were served in Alaska in 2001, Murphy said. If the budget is cut, many of those might have only hospital emergency rooms to turn to in times of crisis, he said.

That already happens. Murphy described three people he saw at the Bartlett Regional Hospital emergency room one day last week: A man who had just gotten off the ferry and was "very psychotic," a Juneau resident who was skipping prescribed medication, and a youth who threatened suicide.

All of JAMHI's and Bartlett's mental health beds were full. It was too late in the day to fly the five patients to Alaska Psychiatric Institute in Anchorage, Murphy said.

"Bartlett had to find private guards to guard them in rooms in the general population," he said.

JAMHI serves people suffering from chronic mental illness, who generally get disability assistance, and people who experience periodic episodes of mental health problems, such as acting violently or attempting suicide.

Currently, JAMHI gets $47,000 in state funding to treat people who have periodic mental health problems. If the state budget cuts were made, "ultimately you might have to put attempted suicides in jail to protect them," said JAMHI Executive Director Brenda Knapp.

"It would be very destructive of the quality of life in this community, and it is not something any of us want to face," Knapp said. "We would continue to fund emergency services and services for children, for ethical reasons, but (nonchronic) clients would not be treated, and we would take a hit in our other mental health programs as well."

On Monday, the House passed a budget on party lines that included cuts in mental health funding. The state faces a projected $1 billion deficit.

"They took about 3 percent ($100,000) out of community mental health," Rep. Hudson said. "The Mental Health Board is saying this will affect the general community mental health grant program, which serves five programs in 15 communities. Most of the major communities (including Juneau) could be suffering from that."

Advocates for mental health services can lobby the Senate to restore the funding.

"If some cuts are too deep, we will have people falling through the cracks," Hudson said. "I think before the process is over, some of these cuts will be restored. But you have to have a place to start from, and we started from the availability of money."

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