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Senate plan includes big cuts to mental health programs

TALLAHASSEE — Programs that serve mentally ill patients or addicts could see their state funding zeroed out this year under a Senate budget proposal.

The proposal would slash overall state spending on adult mental health and substance abuse treatment by about 40 percent, or $87 million.

The cuts would include eliminating state support for some programs entirely — including potentially Northside Mental Health Center in Tampa.

It's not that alcoholics, drug addicts or the mentally ill don't need the help, said Sen. Joe Negron, the Stuart Republican in charge of the Senate's health care budget. But Negron said he would rather make these cuts than reduce spending on programs for the disabled, the elderly and children.

"When it comes to funding, an 85-year-old woman in a nursing home matters more to me than a 45-year-old guy with a substance abuse problem," he said. "It's all about priorities."

The Senate proposal differs greatly from the budget passed last week in the House, which called for an additional $32 million in treatment funds. The Senate plan has been criticized by both providers, who stand to lose millions in state funding, as well as law enforcement officials who warn there will be a trickle-down effect that could drain state resources.

"We know that if we don't get it (help), they'll be in our jail and they'll be victimizing our constituents," said Jacksonville Sheriff John Rutherford, who serves as the Florida Sheriffs Association's legislative chair.

Mark Fontaine, executive director of the Florida Alcohol and Drug Abuse Association, said the cuts may save money in the short term but ignore the savings that prevention and intervention programs provide. "It's cheaper to treat somebody than it is to put them in a prison," he said. "It's cheaper to treat somebody than it is to take their children away in child welfare. It's cheaper to treat somebody than for them to show up at the emergency room."

Like many providers around the state, Marsha Lewis Brown has also started lobbying her local legislators to reject Negron's plan. As executive director of Northside Mental Health Center in Tampa, she serves more than 4,300 severely and persistently mentally ill patients each year. "With funding cuts like the magnitude of these, where would the folks end up?" she said.

Brown understands the challenge lawmakers face trying to balance the budget and close a nearly $2 billion shortfall. But doing it at the expense of addicts and the mentally ill doesn't seem right, she said.

"It makes it sound as if we don't understand and appreciate that mental illness is comparable to a primary illness," she said. "You can't ignore a diabetic who needs insulin. Just like you can't ignore a schizophrenic person who needs medication and needs support."

Tia Mitchell can be reached at tmitchell@tampabay.com or (850) 224-7263.

Senate plan includes big cuts to mental health programs 02/14/12 [Last modified: Tuesday, February 14, 2012 10:35pm]
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