Mental health budget overhauled

Gov. Dannel Malloy’s budget proposal would cut $1.3 million of research funding for the Yale-affiliated Connecticut Mental Health Center.
Gov. Dannel Malloy’s budget proposal would cut $1.3 million of research funding for the Yale-affiliated Connecticut Mental Health Center. Photo by Kathryn Crandall.

In the wake of a renewed national focus on mental health services after a gunman left 27 people dead in Newtown, Conn., last December, Gov. Dannel Malloy has released a budget for the Connecticut Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services that increases funding for young adult services, but may leave some of the state’s most vulnerable patients without public assistance.

The proposed budget calls for an increase in support for home and community-based services, in addition to brain injury placements and help for adolescent and early adult patients. But the plan also reduces funding for legal services and testing, including eliminating $1.3 million for research at the Yale-affiliated Connecticut Mental Health Center.

Jan VanTassel, attorney and executive director of the Connecticut Legal Rights Project, said the cuts will have a “serious” effect on her organization’s ability to provide mentally disabled individuals and their families with the legal representation they need to stay in their homes and get much-needed care. The agency works with clients who face eviction, whose housing subsidies are threatened, and individuals who need disability assistance to be able to enter and exit their homes. CLRP did not anticipate the elimination of a significant portion of its state funding.

“I was stunned,” VanTassel said. “We have always had a very strong working relationship with [the Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services], and we often get direct referrals from DMHAS staff.”

CLRP employees have been operating under a salary freeze for the past two years, and VanTassel acknowledged that the cuts, if enacted, will result in “immediate layoffs” of legal personnel.

“We will need an additional $493,000 to be operational in the next fiscal year. What this means in terms of impact on clients is that we’re not going to be able to conduct housing and disability advocacy,” VanTassel added. “Some will likely lose their housing.”

Malloy’s press secretary Juliet Manalan declined to comment on the cuts and referred the News to the budget speech the governor delivered last week in Hartford, in which he proposed reducing services spending by $1.8 billion.

“The governor has made it very clear that budget cuts were necessary,” she said.

Connecticut is projected to end the current fiscal year on June 30 alone with a budget deficit of $140 million.

The cuts will also have an immediate impact on services in New Haven, where the Connecticut Mental Health Center is located. State Rep. Juan Candelaria, D-New Haven, told the New Haven Independent in a Feb. 8 article that the elimination of funding will directly affect the care that patients in the city receive through the research funding used by the center for treatment. He said he opposes  the proposed cuts in Malloy’s budget for DMHAS.

But DMHAS spokeswoman Mary Kate Mason emphasized that the budget for the department will increase as a result of “caseload growth” among young adults requiring mental health services. Mason also said that the budget figures — including the cut in CMHC funding — reflects an anticipated increase in assistance from the federal government, with continued implementation of the Affordable Care Act of 2010.

“The governor’s proposed budget for DMHAS increases funding for available community services and accounts for the reduction in need for state subsidies for under- and uninsured individuals as a result of the Affordable Care Act,” Mason said. “Mental health services are one of the core services provided for under the Affordable Health Care Act, so it is anticipated that mental health services will be more widely available.”

It remains unclear, however, whether those who are not covered by the Affordable Care Act and who do not receive public health benefits will be able to receive mental health treatment following the implementation of the budget for fiscal year 2014.

The overhaul also has other groups, including the Connecticut chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, concerned. Sara Frankel, part of the public policy team at the organization, expressed mixed feelings with the projected budget.

“We’re pleased to see an increase in the line item for young adult services, and we’re thankful that Gov. Malloy recognizes the need to expand the state’s work with more young adults,” Frankel said.

But she also called the proposed cuts “concerning,” noting that legal advocacy often represents the key factor in guaranteeing a patient’s unhindered access to needed care. While state laws differ, many have regulations that do not accept new patients in the public system until they prove themselves “dangerous” by hurting themselves or someone in the community.

In explaining her surprise at the decision, VanTassel said that the governor has previously been receptive to the need for effective legal services for patients with mental illness.

“At a reception last year for people in the profession, Gov. Malloy called legal services the ‘safety net of safety nets,’” VanTassel said.

Another problem with cutting legal advocacy funding is the “ridiculously low” salaries that are generally offered to attorneys who are recruited to work on behalf of mentally disordered patients, VanTassel said.

Malloy’s proposed budget increases spending overall by 5.1 percent in fiscal year 2014.

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