The cruel gutting of TEAM

The cruel gutting of TEAM

August 4th, 2011 in Opinion Times

The TEAM Centers Inc. is a private nonprofit organization with an office at 1000 Third St. in Chattanooga that handles evaluation and assessment of people with developmental disabilities.

Photo by Alex Washburn/Times Free Press.

When it comes to heartlessness and the cruel gutting of essential services for the mentally ill and the developmentally disabled, Gov. Bill Haslam's administration and his chiefs at the state's Department of Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities (DIDD) are apparently peerless.

First they slashed budgets and services in the Department of Mental Health and the Department of Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities. Then, overriding pleas from advocates from the Tennessee Health Care Coalition, they stripped TennCare's meager capacity to provide back-up mental and behavioral-care services.

Then they eliminated a critical funding grant of $774,000 for the Chattanooga-based TEAM Evaluation Center, the lifeline for some 2,700 patients and their families in southeast Tennessee who need help to care for children and adult family members with autism and other intellectual and developmental disabilities.

And then, they told the families of patients at TEAM to look for help at the equally strapped county school systems and Siskin Hospital, neither of which possess the staff or the expertise in severe developmental disabilities that would be needed to replicate the coordinated teams of diagnosticians, clinicians and doctors at the TEAM Center.

The state's myopic elimination of the sustaining grant to the TEAM Center, announced barely two weeks ago, was as surprising as it was shocking. It was surprising because it came with no advance notice, and only after the Legislature had ended its session and its budget reviews, which might have averted the shutdown had it been announced earlier.

And it was shocking -- affected families say it is absolutely devastating -- because it left no viable option for replacing the critical lost services of the TEAM Center.

There's also this stunning kicker. After zeroing out the grant that had sustained these irreplaceable services at Team Center for more than 15 years, the state initiated a new grant of $4 million to the East Tennessee Human Resource Agency, an independent public service agency which according to its website currently provides no programs remotely similar to those provided by TEAM center.

According to the DIDD proposed 2011-2012 budget, the new services at the Greeneville agency in northeast Tennessee, four hours away, will use the $4,035,300 grant to provide a staff of 45 and new services to some 290 patients. If that's an accurate figure, its expenditures would amount to more than $13,900 per patient. TEAM Center's comparative cost for highly valued services by a staff of 25 members to 2,700 patients under the $774,000 grant equates to an average per patient cost of just $286.

State DIDD officials have suggested that southeast Tennessee residents may make appointments at the Greeneville Resource Center, though Commissioner Jim Henry confessed that he didn't know if its services would meet the clinical and diagnostic needs of TEAM Center patients.

That's all the more reason to question the state's new investment at Greeneville for start-up services, of whatever sort, which are so inordinately expensive compared to the cost of the vital services that it is stripping out of Chattanooga's TEAM Center and its patient base of 10 times the projected size of Greeneville's new unit.

None of this meets the common-sense standard. It certainly doesn't justify the crippling loss of TEAM Center services in southeast Tennessee, and the tragic consequences that will now befall the families left to deal with circumstances beyond their ability to handle.

It exposes, as well, the deep flaw in the logic that DIDD officials use to justify spending nearly $14 million to fund the three centers in west, middle and northeast Tennessee: To provide critical services for intellectually and developmental impaired citizens which typically are not otherwise available.

These services will not be available in Southeast Tennessee if TEAM Center funding dries up. The only way to forestall the blind and illogical gutting of services at TEAM Center is for Gov. Haslam to reverse the current cutoff of funding on Aug. 12. That deadline is just eight days away. Haslam will have to move fast to prove his administration isn't both wrong and heartless.