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A Times Editorial

A matter of saving money and morality

In a shortsighted move that would inevitably affect Florida's public safety individually and collectively, the state Senate proposed dramatic funding cuts to mental health and substance abuse treatment for adults. But senators still have a chance to get it right. As final budget negotiations between Senate and House leaders begin today, the Senate should agree with the House and Gov. Rick Scott to make mental and substance abuse treatment funds in the Department of Children and Families a top priority. Otherwise, the state will be at risk of severe financial and public safety consequences.

Balancing the budget on the back of troubled and afflicted residents is not only cruel, it is simply a cost-shifting maneuver. Lawmakers are naive if they think these cuts will result in any real savings to taxpayers. Adults who can no longer access help with an addiction or obtain the medicines that keep their mental problems in check will simply land in local jails, state prisons, state forensic hospitals and hospital emergency rooms — the most expensive alternatives possible.

The National Alliance on Mental Illness estimates that for every dollar invested in mental health treatment, between $3 to $8 is saved in reduced criminal activity and hospitalization. The Florida Council for Community Mental Health cites a $7.14 return on every $1 spent for substance abuse treatment. But beyond the money, leaving people with mental illnesses without support services or medications ensures that many of them will go from stable lives and employment to homelessness, destitution and imprisonment — an unacceptable tradeoff.

Rather than taking a fiscally conservative approach and finding the dollars to cover these cost-saving programs, the Senate leadership was willing to cut 60 percent of funding for adult community mental health services and 27 percent from adult community substance abuse programs. This would end care for more than 140,000 adults statewide out of 328,000, including eliminating funds for indigents to buy prescriptions. So even if mentally ill adults are still able to see a doctor, they would be unable to get the medications that control their illness and stabilize their behavior unless they could afford to pay.

Pinellas County providers alone are slated to lose nearly $13 million, eliminating help for an estimated 19,000 adults who receive mental health or substance abuse treatment annually with DCF funds. The Boley Centers, Operation PAR, Gulfcoast Jewish Family and Community Services, and the Suncoast Centers all said the Senate plans would eliminate or significantly reduce such essential services as residential treatment beds, case management services that keep track of mentally ill clients, substance abuse treatment, supported housing services, employment help and outreach.

Getting priorities right is the Legislature's job, and the Senate hasn't done its well so far. From a fiscal, public safety and humanitarian perspective, it makes no sense to eviscerate these services. Senators should not blow their second chance to get this right.

A matter of saving money and morality 04/26/11 [Last modified: Wednesday, April 27, 2011 8:05am]
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