ST. PETERSBURG — In a state that ranks near the bottom for mental health funding, every dollar that reaches local care providers counts.
That's why alarm bells sounded recently when 6th Judicial Circuit Public Defender Bob Dillinger told Pinellas commissioners that the county stands to lose $3.2 million in state funding in the next few years.
"If we pull $3 million out of Pinellas, we're going to be hurting," Dillinger said.
The funding cut is only a proposal at this point, Linda McKinnon, chief executive officer for the Central Florida Behavioral Health Network, told the Tampa Bay Times.
"There's been no decision to move funds out of Pinellas," McKinnon said.
The Department of Children and Families contracts for behavioral health services through regional networks called managing entities. Central Florida Behavioral oversees the Suncoast region, which includes Pinellas, Hillsborough, Pasco and 11 other West Florida counties. A subcommittee of Central Florida Behavioral's board of directors recently analyzed census data on uninsured residents to measure disparities in per capita state funding.
The study concluded that about $3.2 million should shift from Pinellas to the 20th Circuit over the next four years if state funding stays flat. That circuit includes Hendry and Glades counties, both of which are rural and severely underfunded, the study found.
McKinnon said moving dollars from one circuit to another is a last resort and would require a vote by the board of directors. The study's main goal, she said, is to make a data-driven case to the Legislature for more funding for the entire network. If that funding comes, the new equity formula would be used to distribute it.
"The very last option would be to touch dollars in other communities," McKinnon said.
Though state funding is flat for the upcoming budget year, the earliest an equity plan could be used likely would be fiscal year 2015-16, said Larry Allen, Central Florida Behavioral's chief operating officer. The board equity committee is expected to review its methodology in the coming months and present a final plan for review and approval next spring.
Dillinger said state law appears to forbid redistributing money if the funding levels stay flat or decrease. McKinnon said that law applies to how DCF distributes money to each region, not to the regional managing entities once they have the money.
Central Florida Behavioral's contract budget for 2013-14 was about $163.5 million. Of that, a little more than $30 million came to Pinellas to be distributed among 15 providers such as Operation PAR, Boley Centers and Personal Enrichment through Mental Health Services, or PEMHS. Ten of those providers sent a position paper to local lawmakers in March saying the equity plan would create a "tremendous burden" in both Pinellas and Pasco counties, which make up the 6th Judicial Circuit.
Dillinger noted that Florida already ranks 49th in per capita funding for mental health services. Providers also are facing cuts to Medicaid funding as the state moves to a private managed-care system.
Dillinger contacted newly appointed DCF Secretary Mike Carroll with concerns and said Carroll was looking at the issue.
State Rep. Kathleen Peters, R-St. Petersburg, also is concerned.
"We have a lot of veterans here," she said. "I think there are all kinds of parameters that need to go into that equation, and it may not be just census data."
Tony Marrero can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8779. Follow @tmarrerotimes on Twitter.