April 1st, 2015

Cuts loom in wake of deficit

As Connecticut begins the process of sorting out its fiscal budget for the coming year, which starts on July 1, a fight is looming over where to make cuts to cover an expected $101 million deficit for this year.

In the proposed budget introduced by Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, a large portion of the cuts would come from the social service sector, falling hardest on independent, non-profit community service providers. Meanwhile, the governor’s plan proposes a 6.3 percent sales tax reduction over two years and an additional $2.8 billion investment over the next decade on a 30-year transportation plan. The plan would also increase taxes on businesses and cut money from state parks.

The budget deficit, the second largest in New England (behind a projected Massachusetts deficit of $765 million), is blamed partly on lower than expected income tax collections.

The proposed budget, revealed on February 18 by Malloy, includes a number of cuts that have providers worried. The plan would remove more than 30,000 parents from Medicaid (while leaving the children on it) and cut a program recently introduced to coordinate care for high-cost Medicaid clients and provide savings of $25.5 million over two years. The plan will also reduce payments to health care providers for treating Medicaid patients. The parents who will be cut from the program would qualify for federally subsidized coverage.

“For the 34,000 adults forced off Medicaid, they will have to go to the exchange,” said Gary Steck, LMFT, CEO of Wellmore Behavioral Health, a non-profit community mental health provider. “Yes, they will still have health insurance but with much higher deductibles. On top of that, since Medicaid rates for behavioral health have already proven to only cover a small fraction of care, we could see closures.”

“The biggest concern for providers,” he added, “is the human impact. There is no way to have these huge cuts in the system and not see dramatic impact in care.”

At the Department of Children and Families, the cuts would include $8.1 million from private residential treatment programs as well as cuts to differential supportive housing, child welfare support service and residential care for children.

At the Department of Developmental Services, voluntary services would be reduced by $35.8 million over two years. Cuts to the department’s clinical services, voluntary services and employment opportunities have also been included in the proposal.

At the Department of Public Health, cuts would be made to school-based health centers. The state’s regional mental health boards, first created 40 years ago, would be eliminated from the Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services. The DMHAS has seen more than $30 million in cuts since 2012. Some money has been restored to other programs.

“If that cut stands,” said Heather Gates, president and CEO of Community Health Resources, a non-profit, community-based social service provider, “it will radically affect access to outpatient services for adults in addiction services.”

A DMHAS spokesperson felt that the proposed cuts would not seriously impact services, however.

“The DMHAS proposed budget adds funding that is critical to the system,” said Mary Kate Mason, communications director. “DMHAS anticipates that the agency will still be able to provide high quality care to people who access services.”

For social service providers, many of them non-profit organizations who provide the state’s behavioral health and substance abuse services, the cuts would tax a system that has already seen budget reductions over the past few years.

In a state that has been the epicenter of a move towards better mental health care following the tragic school shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown in 2012, providers are dismayed at what they see as the lack of government support for programs that they claim to want.

“In Connecticut, of all places, we should be looking seriously at how to support and grow services for young adults and children,” said Alice Forrester, Ph.D., executive director for Clifford Beers Clinic, a community-based non-profit outpatient mental health clinic.

The proposed budget has been placed in the hands of the state legislature for them to resolve before the end of June.

When asked about other ways to resolve the budget deficit, if there would be a way to keep these programs open, and his response to the concerns raised about reducing funding for services in opposition to the response generated by the Sandy Hook tragedy, the governor’s office chose not to reply.

By Catherine Robertson Souter

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