Union warns of layoffs, DMH chief defends Baker budget

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By Colleen Quinn

STATE HOUSE NEWS SERVICE

STATE HOUSE — The Baker administration’s top mental health official on Thursday defended the governor’s budget proposal, which critics say guts emergency psychiatric services offered by the agency and will force layoffs of state health care professionals.

A statewide union is criticizing the Baker administration for plans to cut teams of mental health professionals who work in southeastern Massachusetts and the Cape and Islands. The health professionals on the chopping block provide care to patients in emergency rooms who are in the midst of a psychiatric crisis.

“The only thing this budget tells us is the emergency mental health teams are being eliminated. That is what we know today. There is no plan that has been put out there to replace those services, no instrument or vehicle to get that accomplished,” said Jason Stephany, a spokesman for S.E.I.U, Local 509, the union that represents human service workers and educators. “And there is no existing infrastructure to provide these emergency services.”

Gov. Charlie Baker’s budget proposes to save $4.7 million by having MassHealth contract with providers for the emergency services, rather than employ state workers. More than 100 people could lose their jobs.

Only in the southeastern part of Massachusetts are emergency services operated by the state. In other regions, MassHealth contracts with providers, according to Department of Mental Health (DMH) officials.

Interim DMH Commissioner Joan Mikula told the News Service that DMH officials strove to preserve residential care, in-patient beds and clubhouses – which provide housing support – when drafting the fiscal year 2016 budget. Those services consume more than $600 million of the department’s approximately $700 million annual budget, according to Mikula, who said cuts needed to come from the remainder of the budget.

Baker’s budget proposes a 1.7 percent increase for DMH over fiscal year 2015. The governor is grappling with a $1.8 billion structural budget deficit for fiscal year 2016 and has proposed slowing the growth rate of the $13.7 billion MassHealth program while making significant investments in local aid and transportation accounts.

“We were tasked with coming up with significant budget reductions. It’s a challenging fiscal climate,” Mikula said after speaking at an annual State House event held to highlight DMH’s work. “And we had some baselines that we were trying to follow. One was, what can we do to reduce the budget that will result in no impact on clients?”

Mikula, who was previously DMH’s deputy commissioner of child and adolescent services, was appointed interim commissioner on March 2.

“As we looked at the emergency services programs in the southeast, we believe it is worth the assessment to determine whether or not those services can be provided as they are in the rest of the Commonwealth,” Mikula said. “And we’re starting that assessment process.”

Stephany said there are too many unanswered questions about the plan, and patients experiencing a psychiatric crisis cannot wait for state health officials to assess processes.

“We are talking about situations where time matters. People who are experiencing a mental health crisis are not in a position to wait for government bureaucrats to figure it out,” he said.