Post Newtown, state preserves mental health funds

Before 26 people were killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School, the state’s Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services (DMHAS) faced severe budget cuts that threatened to undermine patient services. But in the wake of the December tragedy, state officials are looking for ways to preserve funding for what they said is much-needed care.

Across-the-board budget cuts passed last year in response to the state’s ballooning deficit require DMHAS to cut at least $9.4 million from its budget before July 1. Private mental health service providers in contract with the state were slated to lose critical funding — most of which comes from DMHAS — as a result. But instead of passing along cuts to its service providers, DMHAS officials are pursuing internal offsetting measures to preserve funding for mental health care.

“We’ve already notified the providers that the grants for mental health and addiction services are off the table,” DMHAS Commissioner Patricia Rehmer said. “We’re working to protect all private funding — including vocational services and housing assistance that helps recovering patients — but we don’t know at this point if we’ll be able to avoid 100 percent of cuts to providers.”

Rehmer said she will scour the Department’s line item budget to find areas with surplus funds. Personnel services and overtime savings, she said, might have excess funds that could be reallocated to absorb the cuts. DMHAS officials are in conversation with the Connecticut Office of Policy and Management (OPM) to come to a formal agreement on cost-saving measures.

According to OPM Under Secretary for Legislative Affairs Gian-Carl Casa, DMHAS budget cuts were the result of both executive and legislative action to stave off projected deficit increases. When a $1.1 billion deficit was projected for the fiscal year beginning on July 1 — on top of the current $365 million budget shortfall — Governor Dannel Malloy used executive authority to slash $7.7 million from DMHAS as part of his broader funding rescissions on Nov. 28. When Malloy sent his deficit mitigation plan to the legislature on Dec. 7, it included an additional $1.7 million in cuts from DHMAS.

The departmental cuts — the most severe in years –— were initially predicted to spill over to private service providers, Rehmer said.

The Milford-based community health care provider Bridges was scheduled to lose $120,000 in funding, said the organization’s CEO and president, Barry Kasdan.

“We had already laid out plans for direct cuts to our programs. I know for sure that outpatient services and community support services would have taken a big hit,” Kasdan said. “We were notified of the cuts and asked to submit impact statements all prior to Sandy Hook. DMHAS was already working to mitigate these cuts, and the shooting gave the state a final impetus to really pull back on the cuts. Sandy Hook was the straw that broke the camel’s back. Our organization is seeing an increase in referrals, from people both directly and indirectly affected by the tragedy. It’s a natural reaction when something like this happens.”

According to Sheila Amdur, interim CEO and president of the Connecticut Community Providers Association, an advocacy group representing 110 local mental health providers, mental health providers have seen no funding increase for five years.

“It’s after a tragedy that we see legislators and the public focus on mental health issues. Of course this would happen after Newtown,” she said. “But it’s not enough — without more funding, the community’s support system is going to erode. The promises have to come from the governor’s office and we haven’t seen what the budget for the new fiscal year is going to look like.”

According to Pat O’Neal, spokesman for the Connecticut House Republicans, the Newtown shooting has heightened awareness of mental health issues beyond the question of DMHAS funding. Part of the “state’s enhanced mental illness initiative,” as O’Neal described it, is a bipartisan legislative task force that focuses on mental health, school safety and gun safety.

The original appropriation for DMHAS totaled $693 million.

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