By Bill Britt
Alabama Political Reporter
Hundreds of intellectually and developmentally challenge individuals and their supporters took to the Statehouse steps wednesday morning.
The rally was timed to coincided with Mental Health Commissioner Zelia Baugh’s presentation to the joint legislative budget committee later in the day.
“ We are here to support the mental health commissioner’s budget,” said Thomas Holmes, Executive Director of The Arc of Alabama.
The event was planned by The Arc of Alabama a group that according to their website has, “Since 1957, …Represented the interests of individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities and their families on local, state and national issues.”
Severe budget constrains are being felt up and down the state government, mental health is just another segments that has been placed on an ever tightening fiscal leash.
Commissioner Baugh has set a Sept. 30 target date to close mental health facilities around the state. The facilities are the North Alabama Regional Hospital in Decatur, Searcy Hospital in Mount Vernon, the Taylor Hardin Secure Facility in Tuscaloosa, and Greil Memorial Psychiatric Hospital in Montgomery.
Projected cuts to community based mental health programs could hit 25 percent this year.
“The fund for our facilities for the intellectually disabled would be returned to last years funding,” said Holmes, “Last year we had a cut of five percent and then ten percent, depending on proration this could grow.”
Holmes warns that if community based programs are cut by 25% that many facilities will close their doors, leaving thousands without services. Holmes says that these facilities severe around 6000 individuals with disabilities.
“We have over 200 community facilities today, if only 100 closed it will be a catastrophe,” said Holmes, “The state will still have a responsibility and would have to put those folks back in state institutions”
A tireless advocate of the underdog Rep. Patricia Todd (D-Jefferson) said in response to cuts in the mental health budget. “We need to help those who cannot help themselves, I will fight like hell to keep this funding,”
Todd says that cutting mental health for Alabamians is not a real option. She believes it is short sighted and will create more problems than it will solve.
“It may save some money in direct dollars but it will cost far more in indirect dollars,” said Todd, “If people don’t get the care they need and the supportive services need, this will cost the state and have a harmful effect on all Alabamians.”
Some have suggested that cost will increase because of patients using ERs for mental health services and a increase in involuntary civil commitments causing the state and even greater financial burden.
Holmes said, “Well, if there was plenty of money or a mood to raise some additional fund though taxes then that would be a solutions. We don’t see that happening given the tone of the legislature.”
Holmes said that Alabama is the only state in the southeast that has no developmental center and one of only 13 in the country. He says that community based programs work best and are less expensive. But the fear of many facilities closing looms large over the rally.
“We will have a lot of homeless people if we lose these type of community based facilities,” said Holmes.
Todd said, “This morning in a house committee meeting there was a push to give a 50% income tax credit to a corporation that does business in a foreign country, all this while the disadvantaged are outside this house asking they the state to not cut critical service to mental health.”
Todd says she is always going to fight for those on the lowest rung of our society.
“These people don’t have an organized lobby, they don’t have professionals who come to the statehouse on their behalf, said Todd, “So, sometimes their voice is not heard. I am here to speak up, we can’t cut mental health services we need to increase them.”