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Mental health cuts draw criticism

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SPRINGFIELD — Members of the mental health community claim Gov. Pat Quinn's proposed $53 million spending cut will cost the state in the long run, but Quinn and others say the cuts are needed to balance the budget.

By Andrew Thomason

SPRINGFIELD — Members of the mental health community claim Gov. Pat Quinn's proposed $53 million spending cut will cost the state in the long run, but Quinn and others say the cuts are needed to balance the budget.

Quinn's cuts targeted services not covered by Medicaid, the state-federal health insurance program
for low-income individuals, and are not eligible for state and federal funding matches, said Kelly Kraft, Quinn's budget spokeswoman.

Community "centers are able to use the remaining funds to maximize their purchase of Medicaid matchable care," Kraft said.

But state Sen. Mattie Hunter, D-Chicago, said local providers are tapped out.

"It's devastating," said Hunter, chairwoman of the state Senate Human Services Committee.

Quinn's budget cuts could cost the state and local governments' money as those with mental illness wind up in the criminal justice system or local emergency rooms instead of community mental health centers, said Hunter.

The average annual cost to house an inmate in Illinois is more than $21,000.

The cost to treat a person with a mental illness and prevent them from committing a crime or abusing drugs and alcohol is about $8,400, according to the National Alliance of Mental Illness, or NAMI, a nonprofit mental health advocacy group.

Twenty-four percent of inmates in prisons and 21 percent of people in local jails have a recent history of mental illness, according to NAMI.

Mental health advocates also point out that Illinois prisons are bulging with inmates. Originally built to hold 33,373 inmates, the state's prisons now have a total population of around 47,000, with each prison operating at more than 100 percent capacity, according to the state Department of Corrections.

Beyond the cost of incarcerating those with mental illness, the non-Medicaid cuts will end up hurting Medicaid patients, said Karen Freitag, executive director of the Southern Illinois Regional Social Services Inc., or SIRSSI, a private, nonprofit mental health center based in Carbondale.

Freitag explained that because state reimbursement rates for Medicaid are so low and the cost of treatment is so high, many Medicaid services are covered, in part, by non-Medicaid dollars.

"It's a whole system, and if you start dismantling pieces of it, it becomes more fragile," Freitag said.

SIRSSI will lose about $500,000 in state funding under Quinn's proposal, equaling a 10 percent cut to its $5 million annual budget. A cut like that could mean lay-offs or the elimination of some services, Freitag said.

State Sen. Matt Murphy, R-Palatine, said no one wants to see these kinds of cuts, but given the state's finances, they are necessary.

Murphy pointed to a study by the Civic Federation, a nonprofit budget think tank in Chicago, that projects the state will have $21 billion in overdue Medicaid bills by fiscal 2017 if nothing is done.

Murphy said that if the state doesn't rein in spending, it won't have the money to pay off old bills, let alone pay for current services.

"The choices are to cut now and have some Medicaid or don't cut now and have no Medicaid in the future," he said. "Something has to be cut to save the social safety net."

Quinn said Tuesday during a news conference that his $33.9 billion budget includes spending cuts that put the cash-strapped state back on a better financial footing.

"The chickens have come home to roost, and we have to deal with the fiscal reality," Quinn said.

Quinn is proposing closing Singer Mental Health Center in Rockford and the Tinley Park Mental Health Center in Tinley Park, leaving the community support structure, which now faces funding cuts, to pick up the slack.

Sinnissippi Centers provides mental health services in Dixon, 40 miles south of Rockford. It would feel the full force of all of Quinn's mental health cuts, said Andrew Jackson, Sinnissippi spokesman.

"The original idea was to close Singer and the appropriate resources, funding and what not, would follow those people into the communities where they live. If that isn't happening, that's a huge concern," Jackson said.

Those facing cuts admit that the state is in a hard place.

"I realize there are some tough decisions that have to be made in Illinois and I support the process of trying to get to a state of balance, but maybe there are places that haven't been cut as much," Freitag said. Either way, "it's really tough."

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