State funding cuts hit local mental health services

Delivering a message that is likely to be heard in county commission chambers across the state as state funding reductions continue, Bill Persinger, executive director of the Mental Health Center of East Central Kansas, told the Osage County Commission Monday that he is requesting more funding from the county in next year’s budget.

Persinger said state funds for 26 mental health centers across the state have been reduced by more than 50 percent over the last four years. He noted the state budget passed by the Legislature over the weekend would likely cause further cuts.

“We’re just at a point where state funding, which was at our highest $1.1 or $1.2 million, is now down to somewhere over $300,000,” Persinger said.

He said MHCECK has continued to provide necessary mental health services with fewer funds, but also is considering how it can continue while operating at a loss.

“We haven’t closed any doors,” he said, “but we’ve closed some programs – those were things we had to do. We haven’t closed any of our services or branch offices.”

He said the organization has not laid off any employees, but its staff has been reduced through attrition. Staff now includes 165 employees compared to 198 that it once employed.

“As people leave we generally don’t replace them,” he said. “Yet when people keep calling and wanting help, we don’t turn them away. We don’t know what to do when the state continues to change our funding.”

He said the loss of state funding combined with Medicaid payment problems and increased demand for services has put the organization in the position of requesting more funds from the seven counties it serves.

“We’re just in quicksand,” he said. “Just holding county funding steady is not going to keep us from going under.”

Osage County Commissioner Carl Meyer said he could not understand why the state has cut funding for mental health services.

“The state has cut so much from mental health, it doesn’t make sense,” Meyer said.

Persinger agreed, saying he didn’t understand “why the state slashes our funding and then every time something comes down, we get called … every time something bad happens to a community, right after law enforcement and safety people get called in, we get called in, everybody needs mental health. And then we get in the funding line and we’re shoved to the back, I don’t get it.”

“I know it’s not fair to come in here and ask you to make up for what the state is doing or solve my Medicaid problems,” Persinger said.

He said he now faced two ways of getting out of the “quicksand”, one by requesting more funding from the counties, the other by reducing the organization’s employee benefits.

“We’ve skimped here and there and we’re pretty careful about raises,” he said, noting employee benefits have been frozen.

“The problem is we can’t compete with government benefits,” he said. “I lose people to the VA, I lose people to the county, I lose people to the state, lose people to the hospitals. If I just slash benefits, then people leave and then I can’t rehire, and then you’re going call me in here to see why we’re closing offices.”

MHCECK has four offices in Osage County, three of which serve schools at Burlingame, Osage City and USD 434. The other office is a branch office at Osage City.

Questioned by Osage County Commissioner Gaylord Anderson, Persinger said the organization could not raise prices for services and is mandated to provide services regardless of state funding amounts.

“We basically can’t turn anybody away,” Persinger said. “The pickle we’re in – we have to offer certain services, and we have to offer them at a certain discount. We can’t name our price, the customer names their price.”

Persinger said Osage County’s contribution to the organization in the current budget was $70,000, second behind Lyon County at $282,737. The lowest amount received from a county was $5,000 from Chase County. Other counties served by the organization are Wabaunsee, Morris, Coffey and Greenwood. The total amount of funding this year from counties was $547,913.

“We went from 70 to 80 percent of money coming from counties and state grants, to like 15 to 16 percent,” he said.

In a written request for funding presented to the commissioners, Persinger said, “For 2014, we respectfully and urgently request $105,000 in support from Osage County.”

Information Persinger presented to the commission noted the county’s cost for mental health services remained low as compared to the median cost and that of other counties. Comparison information showed that Osage County’s cost was at least the third lowest among the counties served by MHCECK when calculated according to patient admission costs, per service hour cost, and per capita cost.

Osage County Commissioner Ken Kuykendall said he understood the organization’s plight, but said the county had not given raises to its employees in “two or three years.” He pointed to an increase in employee health insurance costs, which he blamed on the federal Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.

“Health care has crushed us, Obamacare is killing us,” Kuykendall said.

Saying he was an admirer of MHCECK and its work, Kuykendall said the organization’s request would be considered when the commissioners develop next year’s budget.

“I’ll give you an ‘attaboy’ for doing good work with what you’ve got,” Kuykendall said. “We’ll do what we can for you, but don’t know what that is.”

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