Mental health services are being reduced in Douglas County at a time when they are needed most.
Bert Nash Community Mental Health Center is losing $785,000 in state funding because of recent budget cuts. In response, it is reducing services that mostly will affect low-income residents and those who don’t have health insurance.
Bert Nash, which serves about 6,000 Douglas County residents annually, has lost $1.4 million in state and local funding since 2007.
“That’s a lot of money. It’s too much money for people to think it won’t hurt,” said David Johnson, Bert Nash CEO. “I sort of feel like it’s that frog in the boiling pot of water that people just don’t realize how painful things are, and I don’t know what it’s going to take to turn it around.”
The agency gets about 50 percent of its funding from the Medicaid program, which recently was slashed by 10 percent statewide.
“So, that’s $500,000 of this cut,” Johnson said.
To help make ends meet, Bert Nash is cutting a program that helps people transition from a state hospital or other hospital back into the community. The program provided assistance for about 15 residents per year.
It also is reducing funding for a housing assistance program by 75 percent. The program helps low-income residents pay for things like utilities and rent deposits. It is used by about 70 people annually.
The agency also is going to require people to pay for services before receiving them, except in emergency situations. The costs for services are based on an individual’s ability to pay. Johnson said he wasn’t sure how many people the change would affect.
An aging specialist will no longer provide free community outreach. The employee often visited nursing homes, but now will be spending time on other services.
Johnson said Bert Nash, which is located inside the Community Health Facility at 200 Maine, has 185 full- and part-time employees who are being asked to do more for less.
Five employees will lose their jobs by Feb. 1, and two positions will remain vacant.
Staff members are enduring wage cuts, furloughs and loss of vacation time. Bert Nash also is reducing training opportunities and eliminating its staff recognition program, among other things.
“They are still absorbing it right now. I think that there will probably be some variation in terms of what people can tolerate,” Johnson said. “We’re really fortunate in that we have a very skilled and dedicated staff. So, I think most people are saying they are willing to step up to the plate and do what they can.”
A Lawrence agency also is stepping up to help fill a void left by the cuts.
The Leo Center, which provides a variety of services for low-income residents, plans to take over a prescription assistance program that is being cut by Bert Nash. The program helps hundreds of people gain access to prescription medicine at reduced costs or for free. The program requires a lot of paperwork and staff time.
The Leo Center, located at 1 Riverfront Plaza, already has its own program.
“The Leo Center has figured out a way to use students and volunteers and they’ve got it set up electronically, so they are doing it much more efficiently than we were, frankly,” Johnson said. “We certainly appreciate that kind of support from them. That’s going to make a difference.”
Jon Stewart, director of the Leo Center, said it’s an example of how Douglas County agencies can work together.
“In tight times like this, we are going to have to collaborate and we’re going to have to get creative,” Stewart said. “I think that’s the silver lining in this.”
Stewart said the Leo Center is still working out the logistics of taking on the extra workload, but is committed to doing so.
But, there will be gaps in mental health services left by the budget cuts, and community leaders are preparing for the fallout.
Craig Weinaug, Douglas County administrator, expects uninsured residents will seek care at other social service agencies, which also are dealing with reduced budgets and growing needs. Or, he expects, they will visit Lawrence Memorial Hospital’s emergency room when in crisis because they will have no alternatives.
He said some residents simply won’t be able to function and will be more apt to disobey the law.
“I know for certain there’s going to be more people in jail. It’s inevitable,” Weinaug said. “When you cut that much money from an agency like Bert Nash, the consequences and the ripple effect on other things in the community are huge.”
The budget situation is expected to get worse before it gets better — statewide and locally.
“For the county, it is going to get worse.” Weinaug said.
Johnson, who has been CEO at Bert Nash since 2001, said he will continue to evaluate services and staffing in preparation for further cuts.
“This is virtually the toughest time that I can remember — period,” Johnson said. “It’s pretty clear that we are going backward, and I don’t know what it’s going to take for us to be able to recover in the future, but that’s what we are going to try and do.”