State mental health boards ready to defend their role after Malloy's proposed budget cuts

Editor's Note:This article corrects an earlier version.

Norwich - The two-person agency that provides advocacy, assessment and other indirect mental health services for the 39-town eastern Connecticut region would be virtually eliminated in Gov. Dannel P. Malloy's proposed budget, along with its four counterparts that cover the rest of the state.

"This is the entire line item for all five mental health boards," Jennifer Gross, executive director of the Eastern Regional Mental Health Board, said Monday of the $584,000 eliminated in the proposed budget released by Malloy's office last week.

Gross said her agency runs on an annual budget of $106,557 in state funds and about $10,000 in private grant funds. That covers her salary and that of a part-time assistant, plus expenses to operate the office in Norwich and coordinate about 100 volunteers. The regional mental health boards, she said, were created 40 years ago as institutionalized mental health care was being phased out and replaced by community-based outpatient care.

"The boards were created to ensure a smooth transition from hospital-based to community-based services," she said.

The governor's budget does include about $50,000 annually for all five agencies, which is not enough to keep them running, Gross said.

"It might as well be an elimination," she said.

Gian-Carl Casa, undersecretary for legislative affairs for the Office of Policy and Management, said the cut in funding for mental health boards is part of a strategy to concentrate social services resources toward client care.

"The primary focus in making budget decisions for social services is to avoid cuts to direct care as much as we could," he said. "The mental health boards are more of an advocacy group. We really wanted to focus on direct care."

On Tuesday, representatives of community-based agencies and towns in the southeastern and northeastern parts of the eastern health board's region met and agreed to contact local lawmakers to lobby against the cut, Gross said.

Mary Kay Mason, spokeswoman for the state Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services, said the boards provide advocacy and education about mental health services. In addition, they evaluate state-funded mental health and addiction services.

"They are the voice of advocacy for people who have mental illness, and a link to services in the community," she said. "Their role has been extremely important."

She added, however, that "some difficult decisions have to be made in these challenging fiscal times."

The Health Subcommittee of the Legislature's Appropriations Committee will host a public hearing about the DMHAS budget proposal, including the cuts to the mental health boards, at 4:30 p.m. March 6 in Room 2C of the Legislative Office Building. Gino DeMaio, chief executive officer of Sound Community Services, said he expects a strong turnout of mental health advocates at the hearing who will urge funding for the boards be restored.

For Sound Community Services, a New London-based outpatient mental health services provider, the Eastern Regional Board provides independent third-party evaluations of client complaints, among other services, he said.

"It's important to me to have that third party," he said. "The board also has access to the (DMHAS) commissioner's office on a regular basis. She (Gross) is able to really articulate the needs of southeastern Connecticut."

The board also conducts assessments of outpatient services provided by state-funded private nonprofits such as Sound Community Services, Gross noted. The evaluations enable the state to leverage federal grant funds.

"Without the boards, the state would have to contract out the evaluations," she said.

David Burnett, chief executive officer of Reliance House, which provides outpatient mental health services in the Norwich area, said the boards provide a necessary check on mental health services.

"It's a terribly important feedback loop," he said. "There's no better feedback loop to make sure those direct services are effective. They involve not only providers, but also family members and people receiving services. The funding is a drop in the bucket" compared to the entire state budget.

Mason, the DMHAS spokeswoman, noted that the budget process is still in early stages, and that many adjustments will be made before the budget is final.

j.benson@theday.com

Twitter: @BensonJudy

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