Latino mental health services in jeopardy due to funding cuts
By Kevin Milliken for La Prensa
Toledo, Feb. 20, 2012: Local mental-health care providers are expressing concern about potential cuts that could devastate the current system of delivery. But the Lucas County Mental Health and Recovery Services Board has warned advocates and service providers the agency must trim at least $1.7 million from its budget—and that figure could top $2 million.
The elimination of state funding and falling property tax revenues from a levy are being blamed for the budget shortfall. The county mental health board has lost approximately $4 million over the past two years due to those two factors alone.
The National Alliance on Mental Illness of Greater Toledo (NAMI-Toledo) would be forced to close its doors if it loses local funding, according to Lisa Canales, education director. NAMI-Toledo receives more than half of its funding, $136,000 from the mental health board. The agency is lining up support from political leaders and others to fight the proposed funding cuts.
“The state level is going to affect us here, I get that. But to completely defund this agency is not only wrong, I expect them to justify that,” said Ms. Canales. “I expect them to completely justify that to all the people who are going to lose services.”
Ms. Canales contends the mental health board had warned agencies early on there would be funding cuts. But the original thought had been an across-the-board 16 percent reduction in funding for all agencies. NAMI-Toledo had been strategizing under that scenario, which would have represented a $20,000 loss.
“We were prepared for that,” she said. “We were obviously not prepared to be completely defunded. Let’s be honest here. Once the mental health board shuts a program down, you’re not getting back in there. It’s not okay with me.”
NAMI-Toledo is an affiliate of a national non-profit organization, which provides educational programs and support groups to mental health clients and families with loved ones who suffer mental illness of some sort. The grass-roots agency currently has four staff members, following the death last year of its executive director. Volunteers are specially-trained under a national curriculum to facilitate the agency’s programs under the supervision of NAMI-Toledo staff. Its services are free to those who need them.
“If you look at our numbers and everything that we do, it is pretty amazing,” said Ms. Canales. “Everything we do outside of staff is done by volunteers. We don’t pay these folks, so there isn’t any room for cuts.”
The NAMI-Toledo education director pointed out the agency’s minority outreach programs, which are targeted toward the African-American and Latino communities. Ms. Canales stated a support group is conducted in both English and Spanish, the only one of its kind state-wide.
“NAMI has never been more active in the community than we are right now,” said Ms. Canales, who has been involved either as a staff worker or a board member over the past decade. “We are doing more educational classes, more support groups, more outreach than we ever have. We are not just in our offices, but in other agencies. Our thinking is this: if they can’t come to us, we’ll go to them.”
NAMI-Toledo has taken 680 phone inquiries for services and programs just since January first.
However, a community action plan filed with the state by the mental health board last fall appears to target NAMI-Toledo’s program for elimination. It reads, in part:
“One program the Board funds is a minority outreach and support program to African-American and Hispanic persons with mental illness and their families. This may be a program that would be eliminated to save money for treatment; however, there would be no disproportionate reduction in treatment services to minority communities. The system does not have many programs that target populations by demographic differences; therefore we would not anticipate a change in the level of service to a particular group.”
Some local leaders are encouraging the mental health board to put a levy on the November ballot. They expect easy passage with the high numbers of voters who would turn out for a presidential election.
In response to the local funding situation and similar problems state-wide, NAMI-Ohio is sponsoring a conference late April on the current state of the state mental health system. A marketing brochure states: “a quick look at some of the headlines around Ohio over the past few weeks are enough to tell you that our state’s mental health system is in deep trouble. And while the problems are easy to spot, the solutions for fixing those problems are less so.”
Advocates for Basic Legal Equality
Advocates for Basic Legal Equality (ABLE) has received funding from the mental health board for nearly four decades. But the legal aid group may see its current $91,000 allocation eliminated completely.
ABLE tries to assist low-income mental health clients to secure federal Supplemental Security Income (SSI) benefits, which also can help them gain health insurance coverage through Medicaid. Mental health agencies can secure reimbursement for their treatment and ensure clients are taking the proper medications to recover.
“That allows them to have some disposable income,” explained Joe Tafelski, ABLE executive director. “If they’re homeless, it allows them to get an apartment, clothing, take care of basic human needs.”
ABLE last year helped 112 mental health consumers obtain more than $500,000 worth of benefits, which Tafelski explained provides a solid return on investment for the funding the mental health board provides legal aid.
“We help to end homelessness. We help mental health consumers get into a situation more conducive to treatment,” said Tafelski. “In their daily life, they’re going to be a lot more predisposed to taking their medication, maybe more diligent on treatment. It just helps them grow and recover.”
Some private attorneys assist clients to obtain SSI benefits and keep a portion of the award as payment, stated Tafelski. But he explained many are ill-equipped to deal with daily phone calls from mental health clients inquiring about the status of the case. Individual attorneys must also navigate a system to obtain a client’s medical records to prove the client is qualified.
“There won’t be any advocates to work especially with mental health consumers,” said Tafelski. “If you have no resources and you’re floating around on the streets, you’re not taking your medications, you’re probably going to wind up in the criminal justice system, end up homeless, getting your medical care through the emergency room. All those things end up adding up to be so much more costly for people.”
The mental health board has made no final funding decisions. Agencies can appeal any decisions to cut funding. Those agencies also have received questionnaires from the mental health board seeking more information about services and their communitywide impact. The mental health board will vote Feb. 28, 2012 on recommendations made by board staff, but final decisions won’t be made until June.