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Mental Health Treatment Faces an Uncertain Future

By Caslon Hatch, Weekend Anchor, General Assignment Reporter, chatch@ktuu.com
Published On: Nov 21 2013 10:30:00 AM AKST

Many Alaskans struggle with mental health illnesses, but potential cut backs in the state’s mental health budget could mean fewer services for care.

Anchorage, ALASKA -

Many Alaskans struggle with mental health illnesses, but potential cut backs in the state’s mental health budget could mean fewer services for care.

A lot of Alaska’s mental health facilities are non-profit organizations, getting a majority of funds from state grants.

According to state officials, there hasn’t been a decline in grants awarded to these mental health facilities but there hasn’t been an increase either.

This worries many organizations because the amount of grants given haven’t been able to keep up with the rising cost of health care.

“We get about 100 referrals a month and of those 100 we serve about 20,” said Suzanne Fairbanks, chair of Anchorage Community Mental Health Services.

Turning away any mental health patient isn’t something the non-profit takes lightly.

The organization has taken a hit this past year. It currently employs 169 people at its Anchorage facility, that’s down from 228 employees in 2012.

Because of that staff reduction there has been a decline in patient care, going from serving 2,248 clients in 2011 to 2,025 clients in 2012. Officials at Anchorage Community Mental Health Services anticipate even few patients being served by the end of 2013.

“When you don’t get enough money to cover the costs of doing business you can’t serve as many clients. If you serve more clients you will run yourself out of business essentially,” Fairbanks said.

According to the non-profit organization, grant money from the state has been consistent but that consistent flow of cash hasn’t been able to equal up to the money they need to continue to serve the same amount of patients in previous years.

“The state grants have generally been flat, we haven’t seen a big increase but the cost of doing business keeps going up,” Fairbanks said.

“This is a constant concern that our grant dollars have not increased a lot over time,” said L. Diane Casto, acting director of Alaska’s Division State Behavioral Health.

Jeff Jessee, CEO of the Alaska Mental Health Trust Authority, explains that mental health facilities in Alaska are funded by two main sources: Grants and Medicaid.

“Medicaid is a formula-driven program that’s very difficult for the legislature to reduce its entitlement program and it’s a match with state money with federal money,” said Jessee.

But grants are a different story. Those are funded by the state, which makes them a target for cuts. Jessee says any reduction in the mental health budget could ultimately affect those who need help.

“We’re hopeful when the legislature really looks into these programs and the needs of the community and the outcomes that we get, that they will be supportive of these programs and understand the need to in fact further expand them,” Jessee said.

But cut backs and mental health funding are not just happening in Alaska.

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), 39 percent of Americans with the most severe cases of mental illness are not receiving care.

 “People with mental health conditions that are most severe and persistent such as schizophrenia, bi-polar disorder and severe depression only 61 percent of those people are receiving treatment,” said Francine Harbour, Executive Director of NAMI Anchorage.

“We really do try and manage that in our allocations every year by looking at how many people are served, where the services are going up and going down and trying to make sure the money is going into the right areas in a fair and equitable way,” Casto said.

Anchorage Community Mental Health Services is ready to show the state how its money helps mentally ill patients in Alaska.

“The state wants to see performance so we have statistics that we can show of the positive impact that we’re doing in the community,” Fairbanks said.

By showing the state the numbers, Fairbanks hopes more money will be added to the mental health budget so ACMHS and other organizations like it can continue providing the care people need.

In the fiscal year 2014, the Division of Behavioral Health did receive about a $2 million cut in its budget but officials say a large portion of that cut went to substance abuse services.

Mental health facilities fear that even more cuts could be made and that it could affect state grants awarded to these organizations.

The state will find out what will be cut and what will be gained when the governor is expected to release his budget in December for the upcoming legislative session.