State to cut mental health services, lay off employees

Published 12:20 am Wednesday, May 3, 2017

JACKSON (AP) — The Mississippi Department of Mental Health plans to eliminate 650 positions, some through layoffs, over the next year because of state budget cuts. The department is announcing that it’s reducing some services, while one will be handed off to community mental health centers.

The cuts are among the highest-profile results of the austere state budget passed by lawmakers for the year beginning July 1. They come in the midst of a lawsuit filed last year by the U.S. Justice Department alleging Mississippi relies too much on psychiatric hospitals and other institutions, as opposed to community care. Under federal law and court decisions, states are supposed to help people live at home and not in institutions.

Some vacant positions will be eliminated, and some employees are expected to retire or leave on their own.

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Spokesman Adam Moore said the agency didn’t consider closing any of its 11 institutions.

Mental Health officials halted enrollment in a program that pays for care outside institutions. Moore said that cost increases means enrollment will be frozen at 2,500 slots, and that new patients will only be added when old patients leave. The budget for the department caps spending on those slots at $28.5 million.

Matt Nalker, executive director of ARC of Mississippi, which serves people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, said cutting institutions without increasing community services is “the wrong conversation” because it doesn’t help get people closer to home.

“There needs to be an enhancement of services and more choices for the families,” Nalker said.

Democrats say the cuts show the Mississippi GOP’s policy of tax cuts and decreases in state services is the wrong approach.

“You’ve got state employees losing their jobs; you’ve got services being cut,” said state Rep. Tom Miles, a Forest Democrat. “It’s going to lengthen the wait times and people aren’t going to get the services they need.”

Republicans acknowledged the decreases would lead to layoffs as they passed the state budget, but let the department decide what to trim.

“You can’t say it’s the alternative we would have wanted, but we knew this was going to happen,” said Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Buck Clarke, a Hollandale Republican.

The department will close a unit that houses mentally ill children and teenagers at East Mississippi State Hospital in Meridian, consolidating it with another such unit at the Mississippi State Hospital at Whitfield, saying both have empty beds. That closure will result in 73 layoffs, although employees will be able to apply for other jobs.

Mental Health will transfer the last crisis stabilization unit that it runs directly, at Central Mississippi Residential Center in DeKalb, to Meridian-based Weems Community Mental Health Center. The department says it will pay Weems out of its service budget. That change will result in 52 layoffs, but Mental Health said employees can apply for jobs with Weems.

The department has also stopped admitting new patients to five regional centers for intellectual and developmental disabilities, as well as nursing homes at Meridian and Whitfield. Moore said the agency plans to cut jobs at each location, and said fewer employees means fewer patients can be cared for. He said admissions are likely to resume once staff and patient numbers are cut to lower levels.