Budget cuts will hurt mental health providers

Citizens who need help will lose, and so will Maryland taxpayers

The state Board of Public Works recently approved significant cuts to community mental health services that will reduce access to care and worsen an ongoing crisis in the workforce ("O'Malley plan to close shortfall is approved," Jan. 7).

One reduction will cut in half a 4 percent rate increase that took effect Jan. 1. And while a 2 percent increase is better than nothing, community mental health providers have received only six adjustments for inflation over the last 19 years.

That's 13 years with no cost-of-living adjustment despite relentless increases in employee health insurance, energy and related costs.

Another cut will slash reimbursement for services delivered by psychiatrists by at least 13 percent beginning in April. This includes prescriptions for medications that enable people with serious mental illnesses to live independently in the community and avoid much costlier hospital care.

More than 160,000 adults and children with mental illness are served by community mental health providers in Maryland. With the right mix and amount of services and supports, the great majority of these individuals recover from their illness and go on to live quiet, successful lives.

As providers we're proud of the critical role we play in helping those who are struggling not only with a devastating illness but all too often with poverty, homelessness and social isolation as well. However, years of flat or reduced budgets have left us struggling to attract qualified workers and hampered our ability to invest in electronic health records and other technologies that increase our efficiency and ability to create positive outcomes for patients.

The recent cuts only make things worse. Despite the lip service given by policymakers to the importance of making mental health treatment available, mental health has never been spared from the mid-year budget cuts made by the O'Malley administration.

Balancing budgets by cutting community mental health care is not only shameful, it's counterproductive, since such care is a cost-effective alternative to emergency room visits and inpatient beds. Citizens who need help lose, and so do Maryland taxpayers.

Herbert S. Cromwell, Catonsville

The writer is executive director of the Community Behavioral Health Association of Maryland.

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