Saturday, February 03, 2001

Budget 'clouds' loom for mental health

Green Twp. family gets sympathy, but little hope for more state help

By Tim Bonfield
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Nick Maiorano wants Ohio to start spending more to help people with mental illness.

        But state officials say there isn't room in the budget.

        Mr. Maiorano has one son who struggles with a combination of mental illness and substance abuse, and another son dealing with cancer. The Green Township family's story was featured Dec. 3 in an Enquirer article about shortfalls in mental health services for children.

        The Maioranos' story has drawn sympathy from Dr. Michael Hogan, director of the Ohio Department of Mental Health — but no promises of funding.

        “The inequities in availability of care for depression versus cancer — when both are potentially lethal diseases — should not exist in a civilized society,” Dr. Hogan wrote in a Jan. 8 letter to Mr. Maiorano.

        “I wish I could outline some proactive steps that we are taking to address these problems, but at least in the short term I see nothing but storm clouds.

        “At the state level, where budgets are never deficit- financed, we have twin "Pac-Mans' of school funding and Medicaid expenditures that are projected to eat up all growth in revenues,” he wrote.

        In fact, a budget proposal released this week from Gov. Bob Taft for fiscal years 2002 and 2003 calls for a 1.1 percent increase in 2002 and a 0.8 percent increase in 2003 in spending for mental health services. The pro posal comes after 10 years of mental health budgets that have failed to keep pace with inflation.

        When funding falls short of inflation, it amounts to a cut, Dr. Hogan said. That's because mental health agencies are facing the same kinds of cost increases for medications and salaries as other parts of the medical system.

        “We've got a competent mental health system in Ohio,” Dr. Hogan said. “But I don't think we've made the case that good mental health contributes to economic well-being and school success.”

        Mr. Taft's proposed budget has drawn fire from a coalition of mental health interest groups called the Coalition for Healthy Communities.

        “Ohio's public mental health system is in crisis, yet the administration's budget fails to adequately address the calamity,” said Terry Russell, coalition spokesman and director of the Ohio chapter of the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill.

        Ohio has the sixth-largest mental-health need among the states, with an estimated 536,000 residents with chronic mental illness. But the state ranks 29th in per-capita spending on mental health, Mr. Russell said.

        “This budget will make it worse,” he said. “It really is discouraging. We get 100 calls a week from families in crisis because services are not there.”

        The group hopes to take its case to state legislators in coming weeks and plans a statehouse rally March 15.

        Dr. Hogan said he sees little chance of the state legislature increasing mental health funding beyond what Mr. Taft has recommended. Instead, he said he hopes the mental health budget won't be further hurt by legislative interest in tax cuts and school spending increases beyond what Mr. Taft proposed.


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