Fate of mental health services hangs in balance amid La. budget debate

Fate of mental health services hangs in balance amid La. budget debate
Source: WAFB
Source: WAFB

BATON ROUGE, LA (WAFB) - As lawmakers continue to wrestle with the state budget, mental health advocates in Louisiana are hopeful they will not be forgotten.

"These cuts are about people. It's not a budget line item. It's real lives that are impacted in this," said Janet Pace, president and CEO of Volunteers of America of Greater Baton Rouge. They provide mental health services to people in 19 parishes, stretching from Baton Rouge to Lake Charles.

Under the House's budget plan, the Louisiana Department of Health (LDH) says they would take a financial hit that would force them to eliminate some of those mental health programs. Services for about 60,000 people could be eliminated or reduced, depending on how budget negotiations pan out.

"More people will be incarcerated when they should be in treatment. It means more people will flood emergency rooms," warned Michelle Alletto, deputy secretary for LDH.

Tamika Perrodin from Lake Charles is one of those in need of care. She suffers from a host of mental health problems, including PTSD, bipolar disorder, depression, and ADHD.

A combination of state and federal funding allows her to get specialized assistance through Volunteers of America. They provide her with therapy, transportation, counseling, and life skills training. She says the thought of those services going away leaves her "speechless."

"I don't know what I would do or what would happen to me. It would just be a sad story," she said.

Under the Senate's budget rewrite, much of the money for mental health services was restored. However, the plan still leaves the programs millions of dollars short. LDH says this would still allow them to provide services, perhaps on a more limited basis.

"This has been a bit of a roller coaster ride as you can imagine," said Pace.

During budget negotiations, much of the debate will center on whether to set aside any funds when crafting next year's budget.

In their plan, House lawmakers do not use about $200 million, with the hope of avoiding a midyear shortfall. However, the governor and the Senate believe keeping that money off the table would lead to the ending of key programs, including mental health services. The governor referred to the House plan as a "non-starter" and threatened to veto such a proposal.

The Senate plan instead uses all of the money the state is expected to bring in next year. Lawmakers have until Thursday at 6 p.m. to pass a budget, or they will be forced into a special session.

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