Locals fear proposed budget cuts will affect care for mentally ill

Locals fear proposed budget cuts will affect care for mentally ill

NEW ORLEANS, LA (WVUE) - While Gov. John Bel Edwards is delaying budget cuts until December at the urging of some state lawmakers, concerns about the impact of the cuts on mental health care in the New Orleans area are not waiting.

The state has a $313 million shortfall for the budget year that ended June 30, and under state law, it must be wiped out.

Part of the cuts the governor has proposed is a cut of $245,386,837 for the health department and the 10 Human Services Districts around the state that coordinate mental health services at the local level.

"That's going to be hit hard. They don't have enough psychiatrists in the Human Service Districts; the psychiatrists that see these people are limited.  They may have to see somebody very seriously mentally ill for a half-hour to make up for the volume, and then they can't have a followup visit for three or four months," said Dr. Elmore Rigamer, medical director for Catholic Charities in the Archdiocese of New Orleans.

Rep. Julie Stokes, R-Kenner, sits on the House Health and Welfare Committee as a member of the Louisiana Legislature. She said while many argue that the state's money problems are rooted in overspending, the Human Services Districts are doing a lot with less.

"I would consider it to be as bare bones as they could be right now. The waiting lists are long," Stokes said.

The state health department said Monday that the reduction for the Office of Behavioral Health would be about $1.6 million, and that the reductions will occur in staff attrition, not filling vacancies, travel and supplies and some day-to-day operating costs, but programmatic reductions are not expected.

Still, some state lawmakers and medical professionals who treat the mentally ill said any cuts end up affecting patients.

"Day-to-day operations are also pretty sparse. They are sort of on a lifeline as it is, so cutting it even more is going to create a lot of problems. The human factor, but then these people show up more in the emergency rooms or in the jails," Rigarmer said.

Some lawmakers from New Orleans worry that the impact will further burden the police department.

"We have to do something about the mentally impaired. We put too much on the police department, you know? They're handling mental patients, they're handling everything and that's not what police are supposed to do," said Rep. John Bagneris, D-New Orleans.

"The only thing we can really do right now is to continue to appeal to the Legislature to find those cost-savings, to find those ways to adequately finance our government, to find those inefficiencies and fix them, but we need pressure on lawmakers to make the right decisions and not just the politically easy ones," said Stokes.

The executive director of the Metropolitan Human Services District based in New Orleans was not available for comment.

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