As advocates ask state legislators to spare the state’s mental health system from further cuts, they argue taxpayers will still bear the costs as more mentally ill individuals will end up in county jails or correctional facilities.
“It’s like squeezing a balloon full of water,” Bert Nash Community Mental Health Center CEO David Johnson said. “It doesn’t really get smaller. It just goes some place else.”
Johnson, who leads the Douglas County agency, said community mental health centers statewide have experienced $59 million in cuts since 2008 because of the state’s budget crisis. Included in that, mental health reform grants were cut by $20 million, and nearly $10 million was cut in 2010 because of Medicaid rate reductions.
Douglas County Sheriff Ken McGovern in February urged support of funding the state’s community mental health system when he testified before a House committee on a hearing about the social services budget.
“With the responsibility of providing mental health services shifting from the state to the local level, the financial burden also shifted,” McGovern wrote in a letter to the committee. “There has been an unintended secondary shift as well, from the local mental health providers to the local criminal justice systems in jails.”
McGovern said it is difficult for law enforcement to deal with people who have mental health issues and either do not receive treatment at the local level or refuse to take advantage of services. The individuals often end up frequently being arrested for minor offenses, and once they’re released from jail, they are typically arrested again later either for re-offending or for failing to appear in court.
The sheriff’s office has geared up a re-entry program in recent years aimed at reducing recidivism rates. In 2011, the jail hired three full-time case managers with grant funds to work with inmates and help them successfully re-enter society as law-abiding citizens. McGovern credits the program for helping reduce the jail population to 90 to 100 inmates. The jail’s maximum capacity is 186 inmates.
The sheriff in his February letter said jail officials estimate that one individual he did not identify who has been arrested more than 110 times the past 10 years has cost taxpayers more than $25,000 a year.
The Journal-World in a 2010 analysis came to the same conclusion in the case of Robert “Simon” Gilmore, a Lawrence man often seen downtown who was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia as a child. The sheriff’s office also contracted with Bert Nash and a local psychiatrist to provide in-house services for inmates, which cost $85,000 in 2011.
“It is much more cost-effective for local mental health services to treat the mentally ill than to house them in jails,” McGovern wrote.
Johnson said that message likely would resonate more with policy makers if it comes from law enforcement and corrections officials instead of only mental health advocates.
Mental health advocates are asking the state not to cut $5 million statewide that funds family-centered system of care funds to help mentally ill children and their families, Johnson said. It’s funded with tobacco litigation settlement revenue.
Janice Storey, the Bert Nash program director for children and family services, said the funds in Douglas County have helped families and children get treatment and also helped service providers in communities meet to discuss strategies for mental health issues. Storey said further program cuts could add to a cumulative effect to what has already been reduced.
“I think we do see a direct impact,” Storey said, “on how many folks may be going to jail or how many kids may be going into the detention center.”
Rick Cagan, executive director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness for Kansas, said legislators did not follow a recommendation from Gov. Sam Brownback’s office last year to cut the funds. He said community mental health centers were also facing a $1.8 million reduction in funding for conducting screens for individuals not on Medicaid but need to go into state hospitals.
“It’s just another reduction in funding that they have to absorb,” he said.