Florida Senate budget calls for behavioral health cuts

jsalman@bradenton.comFebruary 11, 2012 

MANATEE -- The latest budget proposal by the Florida Senate would carve more than $93 million from behavioral health services in the state, leaving an estimated 3,500 patients without care in Bradenton, according to its opponents.

Lawmakers says cuts are necessary to overcome a projected $2 billion state deficit grown from property devaluations. Legislators have refused to raise taxes to cover that shortfall.

But facilities tasked with treating the area’s mentally ill now fear they’ll have to entirely shut down outpatient care at a time when demand is at its peak.

“This will mean a major change to most of the services we offer,” said Mary Ruiz, president and CEO of Manatee Glens. “This isn’t rain, this is tsunami time. It’s a disaster.”

Manatee Glens is a 75-bed hospital and outpatient practice providing services for mental health and addictions. The Bradenton nonprofit serves about 14,000 patients a year, including 3,700 children and teens.

Operating on a $26 million annual budget subsidized by the state and county, Manatee Glens has seen the recession push demand to historic heights.

Fanned by increases in depression, anxiety and pain-killer dependence, the nonprofit has treated double-digit increases in patients for three straight years, including a 16.6 percent jump in 2011 alone, records show.

At the same time, a grim job market has left more clients without insurance to cover the costs. Ruiz said the organization can’t afford to lose more.

“This will basically destroy the mental health and addiction system Florida has built over the past 40 years in one fell swoop,” she said. “It will have a negative impact on the whole community.”

The nonprofit and others like it have come under attack by GOP lawmakers who feel the services have become too expensive to support.

The proposed Senate budget released from a subcommittee this week calls for $93.1 million in cuts to mental health and addiction, including $31.34 million targeting adult substance abuse and $5.5 million toward children’s crisis center services.

The budget would land an estimated $6 million blow to Manatee Glens, leaving some 3,500 patients who otherwise couldn’t afford to pay with no care, the organization said.

First Step of Sarasota is bracing for similar pain. The nonprofit runs 40 programs between Sarasota and Manatee, most of which deal with substance abuse.

CEO and President Dave Beesley took a trip to Tallahassee on Thursday to lobby against the cuts. He even had a program graduate share her success story before the Senate. No luck.

Beesley argues the downsizing will actually increase costs for the government support system through rising crime and homelessness.

“It doesn’t make any financial sense at all,” Beesley said. “Where are these people going to go? They’re going to end up in jail and in the ER, where we know it costs more for treatment ... It’s like saying to a community ‘we’re going to shut down the fire department.’”

Lawmakers point to the $2 billion shortfall, and given the economic uncertainty and woeful job market, most don’t see raising taxes as an option.

Sen. Mike Bennett, R-Bradenton, says the budget still has a lot of waste.

He’s fighting for increased responsibility for nurses -- similar to a plan used in 48 other states -- which could uncover nearly $400 million for health care. That in turn, could be used to help behavior health, he said.

“It’s a brutal situation,” Bennett said. “We only have so much pie, and you can only slice it so many ways. If we give it to one group, we have to take it from another.”

Others stressed how preliminary the budget stands at this point. While the Florida House already OK’d a $69.2 billion budget, the Senate still has two weeks to finish its plan.

The budget then will require approval from Gov. Rick Scott.

“I, too, have some concerns but I know it’s early on,” said Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey. “We’re known as the pill-mill state because of the number of deaths and narcotics we distribute here. We need to go forward, not back in this.”

Josh Salman, Herald business writer, can be reached at 941-745-7095.

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