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New Details Emerge On Possible Mental Health Cuts

Mental health advocates say cuts would leave 700 adults with mental illness without adequate care and force 70 layoffs.

New details are emerging on how Santa Barbara County plans to make long-dreaded cuts to its financially failing Department of Alcohol, Drug and Mental Health Services.

The cuts, announced last week during internal meetings, would slash by about 60 percent the county’s contractual agreements with six local nonprofit agencies that provide the bulk of nonclinical services to area adults with mentally illness.

All told, the cuts would lead to about 70 layoffs, and leave about 700 mentally ill adults without care, said Cindy Burton, CEO of Work Training Programs Inc., one of the five nonprofit organizations.

On April 22, the county Board of Supervisors is scheduled to consider the proposal, which was made by ADMHS staff members. If approved, the cuts would take effect July 1.

The proposed cuts include shutting down Casa del Mural, a 12-bed center for severely mentally ill patients — most of them schizophrenic — on Calle Real. The center, which barely survived the ax last year, is the closest thing the county has to a lock-down facility, and requires round-the-clock staffing.

“It’s pretty significant and pretty shocking,” said Burton, whose organization runs Casa del Mural, along with many other support programs aimed at preventing less severe clients from going downhill.

For Burton, the cuts would reduce her county-funded budget to $161,000 from $1.8 million.

“I don’t have an infrastructure to run mental health services with a cut that severe,” she said.

Four of the nonprofit organizations would be similarly affected, and the $365,000 county contract with the fifth—Sanctuary Psychiatric Centers—would be completely wiped out.

Janet Wolf
Reached at home this weekend, Supervisor Janet Wolf said she hadn’t yet seen the list of proposed retrenchments, and so could not comment on any specifics.

Wolf said she believes the amount of proposed cuts — roughly 25 percent of ADMHS’ adult-services division — is “a little over the top.”

“We always say these are the most vulnerable people, but it really is true,” she said. “Whatever we do we have to be very careful, very methodical — maybe not do it all at once. It just seems like a large cut.”

The proposal includes:

• Eliminating an independent living program providing housing and life-skills training for 28 people in Goleta and on the Westside.

• Eliminating a drop-in service in which social workers come to the homes of about 40 mentally ill patients who live on their own. The social workers help the clients manage their affairs — such as paying rent and eating well — and make sure the clients are taking their medication.

• Eliminating a program in Lompoc that helps its clients obtain their GEDs.

• Eliminating a county contract funding a large portion of the 2-1-1 helpline.

• Shutting down two homes — one in Montecito, the other near Milpas Street — serving a total of 14 people with schizophrenia or bipolar disorder.

• Reducing, by 75 percent, the Fellowship Club center, where adults with mental illness take classes in anger management, computers, creative writing or techniques for finding a job. The center also provides part-time jobs to 26 clients.

Annmarie Cameron, executive director of the Mental Health Association of Santa Barbara, which runs the Fellowship Club, said the organization just raised $27 million for a new location for the club. The new building is under construction.

“The timing couldn’t be worse,” said Cameron, whose county funding would be cut to $105,000 from $990,000. “I’ve been doing this for 20 years, and this is the first time I’ve ever had to close programs.”

In addition to the Mental Health Association and Work Training Programs, the other affected programs are Family Service Agency of Santa Barbara, Phoenix of Santa Barbara Inc. and Transitions Mental Health.

The department, which works with a total budget of $84 million, has long struggled to balance its books, but learned in February that their deficit had grown to $7 million. The biggest source of financial malaise is the department’s adult-services division, which makes up about $35 million of the total budget.

To help put the department back on track for the current fiscal year, the supervisors in February dug into the county’s emergency reserves to provide $2.3 million to help close the $7 million gap. The Board of Supervisors also ordered the department to come up with its own list of proposed cuts for the 2008-09 fiscal year. The five-member elected board said it would help to further close the funding cap for 2007-08 if the department directors came up with a satisfactory list of cuts for 2008-09.

Under regular circumstances, the mental-health department receives its money from the state, which is currently in the midst of a major budget crisis of its own. Typically, the county is only responsible for distributing the cash and administering the programs, not bankrolling them, but the February decision to raid the reserves was an exception.

In recent years, the department has suffered financially from the growing number of uninsured adults who receive treatment. Also problematic has been the low Medi-Cal reimbursement rate of 50 percent for eligible adults, as compared to 90 percent for children, according to a county report.

Further adding to the problems are the growing costs of pharmaceuticals, contracted services and temporary doctors, the report said.

The organizations this weekend launched a website designed to advocate against the proposed cuts.


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