State mental health agency plans cuts

The newly formed state mental health agency is feeling the budget squeeze and announced Friday it will eliminate or scale back some programs and furlough thousands of employees.

Agency spokesman Thomas Wilson said the agency has determined it must cut about $15 million so as not to run out of money by the end of the state fiscal year in June.

The cuts come as the agency is working to improve conditions at the state mental hospitals following a federal crackdown on bad conditions and safety problems.

Programs that will be eliminated or scaled back include several that provide direct help to troubled children through the Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities.

The agency will also continue what has been a 5 percent cut to the community service boards, which provide many community-based mental health services to people.

The agency will eliminate a $1.5 million program that provides outdoor therapeutic treatment to about 15 adolescents from the state department of juvenile justice.

Some of the young people have substance abuse problems.

Another program set for termination is a crisis stabilization program at a state mental hospital in Savannah. The participants move to a community-based operation for services. That move will allow the services to receive Medicaid money.

Wilson did not have a full list of all the services that will be scaled back or cut completely, but he said the overall savings will be about $15 million of the agency's billion-dollar budget.

State officials had separated mental health services into a separate agency in July, and Gov. Sonny Perdue largely spared the new agency any budget cuts or furloughs.

But agency officials -- pointing to a still-struggling economy and a 16 percent decline in state revenues -- said they must now take action.

"We ... have to find ways to cut expenses to match declining income," said agency Commissioner Dr. Frank Shelp. "What makes that especially difficult is that the obvious fat has been cut from the budget long ago. Now, wherever we scale back, people are going to be affected. "

The new agency has been tasked with improving the seven state mental hospital, which the federal Justice Department has said are rife with treatment and safety problems.

Wilson said that while 2,900 workers in the state office and hospitals will take 12 furlough days by July, another 5,600 direct care workers in the hospitals will be exempt from the unpaid days off.

Tensions are rising between the state and the Justice Department, which has asserted that the state is not moving fast enough to improve safety and conditions at the hospitals.

Wilson said that despite the cuts, the state still expects to meet the benchmark of being in substantial compliance with the federal requirements for the hospitals by Jan. 15.

State mental health officials last month stopped accepting new patients at Georgia's largest psychiatric hospital, following a federal inspection that found problems with patient violence, dangerous conditions and inadequate mental health treatment.

While Central State Hospital in Milledgeville will remain open, the problems are so grave that the facility will not accept patients for a period that could last several months while changes are made, Wilson said.

Longtime mental health advocate Cynthia Wainscott said the agency must focus on improving services despite the budget cuts. She hopes that the cuts forces the agency leadership to hone their priorities and make good decisions on moving forward.