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Mental health, drug treatment program cuts worry advocats

By Lynn Hatter


Tallahassee, FL – Budget negotiations will begin next week as the clock runs down on the 2011 legislative session. One area that will be a battle ground is Health and Human Services. Included in that category are substance abuse and mental health treatment programs. Both the Governor and the House have decided not to cut those areas, but as Lynn Hatter reports, that's not the case in the Senate. And that has advocates for those programs sounding warning alarms.

The Senate's budget proposal for mental health and substance abuse treatment programs for adults has the social service groups running scared. In a conference call the Florida Council for Community Mental health and the Alcohol and Drug Abuse Associations said if the Senate has its way, 140-thousand patients would lose treatment and five-thousand clinic workers could become unemployed. Mark Fontaine heads the Drug and Alcohol Association.

"A lot of these adults have criminal justice involvement. 52-percent of them have criminal justice involvement. A typical substance abuse intervention is 22-hundred dollars. That same person going to prison would be almost 53-thousand dollars."

Fontaine argues more people would head to Florida's prison system if they can't get the help they need in treatment centers for mental and substance abuse. The Senate's is proposing a 210-million dollar cut to the programs that treat adults. That's about a quarter of the money the state currently spends. When Republican Senator Joe Negron presented the Senate's Healthcare budget, defended the cuts, saying the state has to set priorities and his priorities are on children.

"I want to help as many children and adults as we have the resources to do. But if there's a choice between taking care of a child, and taking care of an adult, I'm going to take care of the child first. And I'm up front about that."

Both the House budget and the one submitted by Governor Rick Scott hold funding for those programs at about 953-million. But the senate cuts those programs by about 25-percent. Bob Sharpe heads the Council for Community Mental Health.

"It's particularly ill advised because these dollars would not be saved. There would be sharp increases in jail admissions, prison incarcerations, child abuse and neglect, and child welfare placement, hospital admissions, emergency department encounters, homelessness and state hospital admissions."

The links between substance abuse, mental health, and increased rates of crime and domestic violence are well known. But Negron says in order to focus on children adults will have to fend for themselves.

"We fund the crisis stabilization units, we fund the detox. What we do not fund and what we've made dramatic reductions to substance abuse for adults and mental health treatment for adults but my view was, we want to take care of our children before we take care of our adults."

The Florida House has a different view, and it holds funding steady. Governor Scott's budget does too. And, he's weighing in on the issue, seeming to side with the House and the mental health and substance abuse advocates. The governor says the programs are a safety net.

"As you know, one thing we have to do in this state is, we have to have the right safety nets. Whether that's for those who can't afford healthcare of those who are developmentally disabled or have mental issues and things like that, we've got to make sure we spent the money as wisely as possible. When we put our budget together we tried to allocate the dollars to the biggest issues you have, and that's how we've done it."

When lawmakers resume budget talks, the mental health and substance abuse cuts will be one of many issues the House and Senate have to agree on. And supporters of the programs will be watching closely to see if they'll take the cut or escape with their livelihoods and programs, intact.