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Proposed cuts to mental healthcare take center stage

If state leaders were looking at making budget cuts in terms of dollars and cents, mental health advocates made sure on Friday to give them a much different perspective.
“Mental healthcare budget cuts are a matter of life and death for some of our citizens,” said Carlos Whaley, a mental health advocate. “It will deprive them of therapy, medicine and crisis management. And yes, some will die as a result of these budget cuts.”
An estimated 200 people came to the Visitors Center in Jonesborough on Friday afternoon to learn more about proposed state cuts to mental healthcare.
Whaley said the proposed state budget cuts would have a “disastrous impact” on the state of Tennessee and would result in no overall savings.
“Law enforcement will become the custodians of those needing care,” he said. “And the citizens of Tennessee will bear the cost and inconvenience of mental health patients seeking help in emergency rooms 24 hours a day.”
Calling it a decision to “pay it now or pay it later,” advocates explained how cutting the services provided to those in need of mental health treatment will only make it more expensive to treat them down the road, when they have gone into full-blown “crisis” mode.
TennCare cuts were also a hot topic at the meeting. Current proposed cuts at the state level will limit the number of doctors’ visits a TennCare recipient can have annually to eight and put a $10,000 cap on a recipient’s coverage.
“That $10,000 cap per year puts pressure on patients not to seek care until they absolutely have to,” said Andra Savage, director of psyciatric services at Bristol Regional Medical Center. “We can’t lose sight of what is important, and that’s patient care. The proposed reductions will not allow us to do that in any fashion.”
In fact, Savage said the cuts are giving doctors the opportunity to help patients “with one hand tied behind our back.”
State Reps. Dale Ford (R-Jonesborough), Matthew Hill (R-Jonesborough), and David Hawk (R-Greeneville) were on hand to hear from leaders in the mental health field.
“When we cut programs, it’s going to cost us,” Ford said. “We need to go ahead and fund this thing and do it right the first time.”
State legislators have already cut $1.2 billion from last year’s budget, but Hill said he suspects they’ll have to cut another $150 million in the coming months to turn in a balanced budget.
“When we have these cuts, it’s not just a line on a budget. It’s not just a number,” Hill said. “What is associated with this is people, families.”
Hill said that despite being a “very conservative state, fiscally speaking,” Tennessee is seeing budget shortfalls largely because “we rely heavily on sales tax revenue.”
According to Hill, the state has seen 22 consecutive months of not meeting sales tax revenue expectations.
“So we have to plug the holes,” Hill said. “We can do that in three ways. We can raise taxes. That’s not happening. We can make cuts. We did that and are continuing to do that. And we can use stimulus money. But that goes away next year.”
Hill expressed his full support of a budget amendment proposed by NAMI that would allot $7.3 million to the mental health system to prevent cuts. That money would be come from the $120 million in claw back dollars coming from hospitals. That claw back money is one-time deal and will not be available next year.
All three legislators agreed that making unnecessary cuts to mental healthcare would only hurt the state in the future.
“If it is necessary to cut, you cut. But you make sure you don’t destroy the infrastructure you already have in place,” Hill said. “We still have a wonderful infrastructure in Tennessee and it would be the shame of all shames if we go and destroy it.
“If we cut into the infrastructure, how much is it going to cost to build it back? It will cost us 10 times that amount to build that back up.”