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Black Caucus meets on budget woes; full impact of cuts still unknown

JACKSON, MISS– The Mississippi Legislative Black Caucus held a budget hearing with officials from state agencies to learn more about the impacts of mid-year budget cuts and the reductions for the 2017 fiscal year. 

The budget cuts could result in a funding reduction for programs that impact the provision of mental health care, a cut in services from the State Department of Health, and could cause Mississippi to fall out of line with federal regulations set by the Americans with Disabilities Act.

“While we do have some numbers, there’s still much, like the state agencies have said, that we don’t know because we haven’t approached the start of the new fiscal year yet,” said District 28 Senator Sollie Norwood.

The Department of Mental Health, The Department of Health, and other state agencies have said that the unknown impact that lies ahead comes from SB 2362, also known as the Mississippi Budget Simplification and Transparency Act. That bill, signed into law by Governor Phil Bryant, states that no state agency can charge another state agency a fee, rent, or other charge for services or resources.  It also takes away special funds that support certain agencies.

“For example, money to the Department of of Information Technology was likely to come from federal dollars,” said Dr. Mary Currier, State Health Officer with the Mississippi Department of Health. “But since we can’t transfer that money to them directly, we have to find another way to receive and pay for those services.”

SB 2362 would also prevent the Department of Health from being compensated during times where large scale emergency response is needed.

“In case of emergency, federal funds through the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency (MEMA) wouldn’t be able to reimburse the State Department of Health for services,” said Dr. Currier.

Dr. Currier added that while the legislature did not consult the agency about the potential impacts of the bill, something could still be done.

“We’d like something in writing that says we can keep doing what we’ve been doing, the way we’ve been doing it to provide these services,” said Currier. “Or the law needs to be fixed to clarify that.”

Outside of SB 2362, The Department of Health is looking at a roughly $4 million cut, which has resulted in the plan to close some clinics, leave 89 jobs vacant, and reduce certain activities that could have led to more knowledge about infant mortality. In order to compensate for some of the cut, there will be a 15 percent raise in fees twice over the next few years, impacting mostly wastewater programs and radiological fees.

“Mississippi currently has the highest infant mortality rate in the country,” said Dr. Currier. “And the lowest amount of funding per capita for Public Health in the U.S.”

Dr. Currier added that Medicaid pays more to private health providers than it does the state, which is good for patients, but bad for the State Department of Health.

“If we don’t get funds from Medicaid, that’s $20 million” said Dr. Currier.

The Mississippi Department of Health isn’t the only entity impacted by the budget cuts. The Mississippi State Department of Mental Health has lost nearly double that of the State Department of Health.

“The Mississippi State Department of Mental Health (DMH) has taken a budget hit of $8.3 million dollars,” said DMH Executive Director Diana Mikula. “Almost $5 million of that came from the East Mississippi State Hospital and the Mississippi State Hospital for psychiatric services.”

That cut resulted in the following:

Mississippi State Hospital – Closure of the 29-bed Acute Medical Psychiatric Service. This unit served 66 people in FY15. The Medical Psychiatric Service provides services to people who have a major mental disorder and a complex medical condition that requires close monitoring and supervision. No additional admissions will be made to this service.
Mississippi State Hospital (MSH) – Closure of the 42-bed Male Chemical Dependency Unit which serves people in need of treatment services for substance use disorders. This unit served 429 males in FY15. Treatment includes a specialized medical detoxification program, basic medical care, group therapy, counseling, family education, motivational interviewing and introduction to 12-Step Recovery. MSH will admit and treat only those people who have already been involuntarily committed for treatment and are currently waiting for services.  MSH services and facilities will not be available for any additional male individuals committed by a court for chemical dependency services.
East Mississippi State Hospital (EMSH) – Closure of the 25-bed Male Chemical Dependency Unit which serves individuals in need of treatment services for substance use disorders. This unit served 330 people in FY15. Treatment includes a specialized medical detoxification program, basic medical care, group therapy, counseling, family education, motivational interviewing and introduction to 12-Step Recovery. EMSH will admit and treat only those people who have already been involuntarily committed for treatment and are currently waiting for services.  EMSH services and facilities will not be available for any additional male individuals committed by a court for chemical dependency services.
South Mississippi State Hospital (SMSH) – Closure of five psychiatric beds which serve people in need of treatment for a serious mental illness. These five beds serve more than 80 people each year. The closure of these five beds has the potential to increase the waiting list for the 15 counties in SMSH’s catchment area.
Ellisville State School – Discontinuation of the provision of early intervention services, which will result in the loss of Special Instruction services to 128 children between the ages of birth to three.  Special Instruction is designed to enhance development through routine-based intervention and parent training/coaching in the child’s natural environment.  Children are provided with opportunities to learn, grow and play while enhancing their developmental skills.
The Department of Mental Health has had to cut 172 jobs: 109 from the Mississippi State Hospital, 56 from the East Mississippi State Hospital, and seven from Ellisville State school.

Similar to the Department of Health, Mikula stated that more impacts will be shown at the start of fiscal year 2017, when SB 2362 goes into effect.

“2362 showed that we, on paper, could save about $5 million, but it’s really about half of that,” said Mikula. “But while we are having to cut certain services, community mental health centers can offer help for those suffering with substance abuse issues. However, those services will no longer be free, but offered at a sliding scale.”

Representatives at the hearing asked about the public safety, since it could be more difficult for those struggling with mental health issues to seek help.

“All 14 community mental health facilities get money for mobile crisis teams,” said Mikula. “They can respond to a situation to help deal with those suffering from a break or crisis, to get these people the help they need.”

Mikula, like Dr. Currier, said she was not consulted about SB 2362 or the impact it would have on the Department of Mental Health.

Joy Hogge, Executive Director of Family As Allies, fears that the budget cuts provide for a bigger problem than just the agencies having to make cutbacks.

“We need to hold the executive branch accountable,” said Hogge. “We’re violating the Americans with Disabilities Act. Budget cuts are keeping those with disabilities from getting proper help.”

Hogge said that children are being put in institutions for mental health issues because the funding for community centered therapies is not available.

“Children are not able to have a family, have a home environment,” said Hogge. “Instead, those children with mental disabilities in up in a facility. We need to fight for their civil rights.”

Hogge added that lawsuits are already underway, and there is suspicion that the Department of Justice is working on another.

“They’ve asked us at the Families As Allies, as well as the Department of Mental Health, about how things work, and for technical assistance,” said Hogge. “I find it hard to believe they would gather all that information, spend all that time, and then walk away from it.”

Hogge said that the DOJ has provided suggestions before on how to better the situation for Mississippi’s children, and those with disabilities, in order to have a settlement and avoid a lawsuit.

“But in December of 2015, the DOJ saw that there was a failure to adhere to the suggestions,” said Hogge. “Again, I don’t believe they would go that far and walk away. There could be a lawsuit that would make the Olivia Y lawsuit pale in comparison.”

The Olivia Y lawsuit was filed in order to make improvements to the state’s foster care system, in which eight children–including Olivia Y–were found to be abused by foster parents.

Hogge said that she has no special knowledge of an upcoming lawsuit, but that she has spoken with Attorney General Jim Hood’s office, as well as the Attorney General himself, and learned that Mississippi is on a path similar to Georgia, in which the state was sued and lost $18 million dollars.
“If we’d sit down with the legislature and fix this,” said Hogge. “It means the people of Mississippi have fixed this. Not lawyers from out-of-state who don’t know how it is or what it means to live in Mississippi.”

The Mississippi Budget Transparency and Simplification Act goes into effect on July 1.

 

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