05/11/10 — Area lawmakers talk about what's next for mental health

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Area lawmakers talk about what's next for mental health

By Steve Herring
Published in News on May 11, 2010 1:46 PM

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State Rep. Efton Sager, right, makes a point while talking to state Sen. Don Davis, left, and Cherry Hospital Director Phillip Cook following Monday's legislative breakfast sponsored by the Mental Health Association of Wayne County.

Mental health programs are bearing a large part of state budget cuts, and those people associated with mental health, either professionally or who know people who use the services, need to let state officials know of their concerns, speakers at a legislative breakfast said Monday.

"Mental health last year took the largest hit in the budget. It took a $1.4 billion hit," state Rep. Van Braxton of Kinston said. "In my opinion that was unfair."

Mental health is an easy target for cuts when compared to the university system or public safety, Braxton said.

"The mental health part is the last large part of the budget," he said. "I am not telling you anything that you don't already know, but if you don't work in it or have a family member who has needed those services then a lot of times it is not on your radar. So that kind of gets the short end of the stick."

Braxton, state Rep. Efton Sager of Goldsboro and state Sen. Don Davis of Snow Hill spoke at the annual legislative breakfast sponsored by the Mental Health Association in Wayne County.

Association members were buoyed somewhat by news that some of those cut funds have been restored in Gov. Beverly Perdue's proposed budget. However, legislators said the budget still has to work its way through the General Assembly. The budget is expected to dominate discussion in the short session that begins Wednesday.

"We are on a tight timeline," Davis said. "We go in session on the 12th and we want to have the budget to the House by the 21st and we hope we can stick with that."

Some of those in attendance want lawmakers to take back personal stories of how the cuts have affected them.

Karla Carter, who works with the Hope program at the Wayne Opportunity Center, has an autistic daughter and a son who suffers from cerebral palsy. Mrs. Carter told legislators that she had been a "squeaky wheel" for years, but to no avail. She said help is available for her son, but not her daughter.

She said if she didn't work or were to divorce her husband that she could receive assistance.

"Why should I do that when I can work?" she said.

Others described how they had been affected by cuts that had hurt developmental disabilities programs.

"The general public just doesn't realize the problems mental health has," Sager said.

Legislators get an earful each year when they attend the breakfast, said Penny Withrow, a Cherry Hospital employee and executive director of the Mental Health Association in Wayne County.

"We expect them to give us sort of an outlook on what is going to happen in the next coming year in Raleigh," she said. "But we also want to give them what is happening locally in our community -- what they need to take back with them to have a better understanding of what is needed in Wayne County as far as mental health services.

"A lot of budget cuts last year hurt our community -- more so in the developmental disabilities. Those services got cut hard. But all three, mental health, developmental disabilities and substance abuse need funding. We wanted them to understand why it is important these budget cuts stop, that the money needs to be put back in the operating budget next fiscal year."

Sheriff Carey Winders said the state sheriffs' association supports mental health.

"We get people who come in our jail who need mental health (services) and not be put in jail," Winders said. "A lot of the sheriffs across the state face that issue."

Concerns were expressed that budget cuts could weaken the police department at Cherry Hospital.

"That is a real concern," Ms. Withrow said. "Our staff is more adept at working with mental health patients (than the Sheriff's Office). I really wish you would take that back with you."

Winders agreed. He compared it to smaller towns that want to disband their police departments in order to save money by letting the Sheriff's Office provide the law enforcement. When that happens people need to realize that a deputy, while available, will not be right at hand like a town police officer.

"We are stretched thin," Winders said.

Cherry Hospital Director Philip Cook agreed with the sheriff.

"We have times when we are serving folks who probably have more of a criminal slant in terms of their behavior than it really being a treatment issue," he said. "So we are trying to serve very broadly and take care of a lot of folks. There is that kind of dynamic that plays both ways. You have folks who are really not there for treatment, are not going to engage in care and are very disruptive at times."

Cook said that despite publicity over a handful of incidents, that Cherry is improving the way it handles such disruptive patients.

"The context of that, I'd like for everybody to understand, we have had probably six or seven surveys in the last six to nine months and all of those have gone well except for this last one," he said. "That is one piece of the story that is missing. What I tried to discuss is that a lot of progress has been made at Cherry in recent months."

Eastpointe Director Ken Jones said he was glad to see an additional $12 million in the governor's budget for in-patient care. Eastpointe currently has a contract with Duplin General Hospital in Kenansville "to keep people who go into a crisis" and need in-patient care, short-term care to keep them out of Cherry Hospital, he said. Jones said negotiations are under way for a similar contract with Wayne Memorial Hospital.

He told the legislators it is important to replace the $40 million that was cut from mental health last year. Mental health actually took a double hit because it lost some Medicaid funding as well, he said.