NASHVILLE — Moccasin Bend Mental Health Institute in Chattanooga will see as many as 46 employees laid off and a 25-bed reduction during the course of the fiscal year 2009-2010 budget that takes effect July 1, Bredesen administration officials said Wednesday.
But despite the cuts in Chattanooga and similar reductions at the state’s four other regional institutes, officials told skeptical lawmakers that seriously mentally ill Tennesseans will not wind up in local jails.
Bob Grunow, deputy commissioner for the state Department of Mental Health and Developmental Disabilities, told House Finance Committee members that even with the reductions, the department should be able to provide services for acutely mentally ill people “on a timely basis” and not have them back up in local jails as advocates fear.
He said the governor’s decision to provide $10 million in additional funding to maintain a “safety net” of community-based services for an estimated 12,000 seriously and persistently mentally ill Tennesseans with little money will provide major help.
Rep. Johnny Shaw, D-Bolivar, wasn’t so sure.
“I pray God that you’re right,” said Rep. Shaw, who earlier noted “not all of our citizens are going to be physically or mentally in a position to be treated in a community-based program.”
Cuts in services for the mentally ill are one of the major concerns voiced by lawmakers as Gov. Phil Bredesen proposes slashing additional spending to deal with falling revenues.
The administration is proposing to cut 192 filled positions and 68 vacant positions at the institutes to save money and, officials argue, eliminate unneeded bed space. Moccasin Bend’s beds would fall from 150 to 125 by July 1, 2010.
In addition to the 41 layoffs — which could be fewer if some positions are vacant — the state plans to cut another 15 positions at Moccasin Bend already known to be vacant.
House Finance Commissioner Craig Fitzhugh, D-Ripley, said lawmakers’ concerns are institute beds are being slashed while some $6.7 million in other state contracts for certain community-based services are being cut.
“The sheriff becomes sort of the safety net,” Chairman Fitzhugh said, noting a proposed change in state law could leave sheriffs and county taxpayers on the hook if there is no room at state institutes or crisis service units operated at the local level.
The administration’s proposed amendment, advocates said, allows the state to deny entry to mentally ill people needing hospitalization if there are no “suitable accomodations.”
Dick Blackburn of the Tennessee Association of Mental Health Organizations, which includes Chattanooga-based Volunteer Behaviorial Health System, said crisis service units operated by community-based agencies “will become over time the emergency room where people in psychiatric crises go.”
Still, although Mr. Backburn thinks the $10 million the administration announced will help the most seriously mentally ill, he said mental health providers want to see the “suitable accommodations” provision not go into effect right now.
He said it says hospitals “do not have to take an individual that has been assessed as dangerous to themselves or others until there is a suitable available bed for that individual.”
Andy Sher is a Nashville-based staff writer covering Tennessee state government and politics for the Times Free Press. A Washington correspondent from 1999-2005 for the Times Free Press, Andy previously headed up state Capitol coverage for The Chattanooga Times, worked as a state Capitol reporter for The Nashville Banner and was a contributor to The Tennessee Journal, among other publications. Andy worked for 17 years at The Chattanooga Times covering police, health care, county government, ...