Mental-health professionals bemoan state-budget cuts at Northwest Philadelphia hearing

A one-arm paper hanger. A duck on a pond.

Those analogies were used Thursday by mental-health professionals during a Democratic Policy Committee hearing to describe the struggle it’s been to serve their clients in the face of state budget cuts.

The hearing, at Resources for Human Development in the East Falls section of Philadelphia, was held as state lawmakers debate Gov. Tom Corbett’s third budget proposal.

“We believe that it’s important to hear from the folks who receive these services and provide those services so that way we can go back with ammunition to support the need for additional funding,” said state Rep. Stephen Kinsey (D-Philadelphia), who co-chaired the hearing.

The specifics

Announced in early February, Corbett’s plan maintains the 10 percent cut — $84 million — made to community behavioral services in his last budget.

The proposal also does not call for the expansion of Medicaid eligibility for low-income Pennsylvanians under President Barack Obama’s healthcare-reform law.

Under the expansion, out of which states can opt, the federal government would pay for 100 percent of all costs for the first three years beginning in 2014 and eventually drop to 90 percent beginning in 2020.

Corbett called the expansion “financially unsustainable for Pennsylvania taxpayers.”

Difficulties for providers

On Thursday, David Schultheis, executive director of community services for Devereux, told a panel of lawmakers that sustained cuts over the years have made it difficult to provide for clients and cover costs.

Devereux’s Medicaid-funded outpatient program, for example, hasn’t seen a rate increase since 2005, he said.

“To make a business work, to make any organization work, you’ve got to have financial systems that match whatever your product delivery is and our product delivery is people — human services,” said Schultheis. “Right now, they’re not really in sync at all.

“We are basically a duck on a pond. You see us and we’re floating just fine on the water, but nobody sees us paddling like crazy underneath.”

Former state Rep. Kathy Mandarino, now senior vice president of Intercommunity Action in Roxborough, said the disconnect between funding and the demand for service can compromise quality. As many would say throughout the two-hour hearing, potential clients are never turned away.

“No one is going to come out and say that quality has suffered, but if you read between the lines, that when you’re a one-arm paper hanger, the paper doesn’t always go up as smoothly as it does when you’re able to do the job with all the tools that you need in your toolbox,” said Mandarino.

Early intervention

Thursday’s discussion also focused on the importance of getting people the help they need as early as possible.

Many argued that when state budget cuts make it difficult for individuals to do that, it can actually end up costing the state more down the road, most notably if that individual becomes part of the prison system.

State Rep. Vanessa Brown (D-Philadelphia) said she has experienced another consequence of people not getting the mental-health treatment they need.

A number of constituents with mental-health needs, she said, have been walking into her West Philadelphia office seeking help. While she’s happy to help, she said there’s only so much she can do.

“We got to fix this because I’m not you,” Brown told panelists.

As the hearing came to a close, Kinsey assured audience members that the day’s discussion will be used moving forward.

“This doesn’t die here,” he said.

The new budget must be signed into law by June 30. The state’s fiscal year begins July 1.

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