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Sunday, October 9, 2011

Mental-health cuts: Experts fear long-term costs

By Mary Reinhart
The Arizona Republic

Arizona taxpayers are providing fewer services to fewer people with serious mental illnesses than they were last year, for annual savings of roughly $50 million.

But the short-term savings from state budget cuts threaten to have long-term consequences for patients, providers and the community, mental-health experts say.

The budget reductions eliminated services for about 12,000 Arizonans who don't qualify for Medicaid, removing the foundation of a system intended to keep the seriously mentally ill healthy and out of emergency rooms, hospitals, jails and prisons.

State lawmakers instead provided money for generic medication and additional funding to beef up a statewide crisis-response system to help prevent people from falling through the cracks. But in the 15 months since this population lost case management, brand-name prescription drugs, therapy, transportation and other benefits, more than 2,000 people have stopped receiving any state-funded services and are unaccounted for.

Local and county jails, emergency responders and hospitals often shoulder the costs when people with untreated serious mental illness, such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, fall into crisis.

The precise financial costs to those entities are unknown, but health professionals do know that it's far more expensive to treat people who have spiraled into crisis than to keep them stable. And once in crisis, health professionals say, it's more difficult for people to rebound, which means those higher costs continue to recur.

"It's a penny-wise and pound-foolish approach," said Bill Kennard, former executive director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness' office in Phoenix. "More people in jail and prison with mental illness, more time that law enforcement spends dealing with a health issue as opposed to a public-safety issue."

The costs

The state has not conducted an analysis that compares ongoing treatment with crisis costs.

But a March 2011 study that examined proposed mental-health cuts in Texas put the average daily cost of services at $12 for adults, compared with $401 a day in the state's mental hospital, $137 a day for a jail inmate with mental illness and $986 for an emergency-room visit.

The study, by Health Management Associates for the Texas Conference of Urban Counties, also showed that gaps in services put those discharged from psychiatric hospitals and jail at greater risk of relapse, readmission and recidivism.

Janey Durham, who is in charge of a workshop program at Mesa's Marc Center, said she lost 120 people to the budget cuts, including a man diagnosed with schizophrenia who deteriorated almost before her eyes. The non-profit agency center provides job training and other services to the mentally ill and developmentally disabled.

Durham said the man, a former alcoholic in his 50s, worked hard at his job in the manufacturing warehouse, at maintaining his sobriety and in treating his mental illness. But soon after the budget cuts forced him to switch to a generic medication, Durham said, he stopped taking his medication, started drinking again and grew increasingly paranoid, plagued by voices in his head.

Over the past year his erratic, disruptive behavior led Marc Center employees to call Mesa police at least once. He is believed to be homeless, she said, but contact with him has been sporadic since last winter.

Read the entire story here.