Bredesen: Mental Health Cuts May Mean Lawsuit

Gov. Phil Bredesen expects a lawsuit over his proposed cuts to mental health services, if the Legislature enacts them, but says they don’t hurt patient care, the AP reports.
The governor laid out plans for $214 million in budget cuts last week, including elimination of about 717 filled job positions, a majority in the Mental Retardation Services Division and the Department of Mental Health and Developmental Disabilities.
More from the AP story, by Lucas Johnson:
Many of the positions being eliminated are at two mental health facilities in West Tennessee, one in Middle Tennessee, and two in East Tennessee. Officials say the cuts reflect fewer patients at those institutions.
“In mental health, obviously there’s a significant number of those layoffs … but what they’re doing is healthy,” Bredesen said. “I was very respectful of those commissioners in terms of how they wanted to go about layoffs.”
Jill Hudson, spokeswoman for the Department of Mental Health and Developmental Disabilities, said the state is funded for 832 beds statewide, but there are currently only 633 people occupying them. She said the state plans to reduce the number of beds to 676, which means a reduction in staff.
“When you have a certain number of beds, you have to have a certain amount of staffing requirements,” Hudson said. “So, when you get rid of the beds, automatically your staffing ratio will go down. I don’t think any layoff is good, but if we don’t have the bed numbers, we don’t need the additional staff.”
Despite the reduction in workers, Hudson said “it won’t hurt patient care at all.”
Melissa Marshall, director of public affairs for the Mental Retardation Services Division, said the same applies for her agency.
With the layoffs, however, Bredesen said he realizes he risks lawsuits from health care advocates.
“We’ve been fighting these things and taking our positions, and generally winning on them, and certainly intend to keep doing that,” he said.
Bredesen last year warned that up to 2,000 state workers could face layoffs, but later said those employees would be spared because of the influx of $4.5 billion in federal stimulus money.
But only a small portion of the federal money can be used to plug general budget holes, and the worse-than-expected economic performance this spring has caused layoffs to once again come into the picture.
Tony Garr, director of the Tennessee Health Care Campaign, said the state should consider tapping reserves for the rainy day fund and TennCare, the state’s expanded Medicaid program.
Currently, there’s $750 million in the rainy day fund and $576 million in TennCare reserves, but the state plans to take about $250 million from each of them to close out this fiscal year. Still, Garr believes they should be used to prevent the mental health cuts.
“Even after the moving around of money out of TennCare, we’re still talking about over $300 million in reserves,” he said.
But TennCare spokeswoman Kelly Gunderson said further siphoning of reserves would be hurtful.
“It’s never a good idea to take reserve funds, that are one-time funds, to use for recurring costs,” she said. “We are already dipping heavily into the reserves just to help the state stabilize itself in general. Once you dip into that, there’s no money left to sustain it.”

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