The state agency overseeing mental health and disabilities services is facing budget cuts, but it still plans to spend hefty amounts to meet the...

The state agency overseeing mental health and disabilities services is facing budget cuts, but it still plans to spend hefty amounts to meet the goals of a settlement agreement with the U.S. Department of Justice.

The Georgia Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities (BHDD) said it anticipates cuts of $6 million to $13 million this fiscal year, part of a 2 percent budget reduction for state agencies ordered by Gov. Nathan Deal due to the economic downturn.

But the agency also said it plans to spend $45 million on community services for people with mental illness and developmental disabilities in the coming fiscal year, as part of the Justice agreement.

In that landmark 2010 accord, the state promised to establish community services, including supported housing, for about 9,000 people with mental illness, and to create community support and crisis intervention teams to help people with developmental disabilities and mental illness avoid hospitalization.

Georgia pledged to stop putting people with developmental disabilities in the state’s psychiatric hospitals, and it promised that all the developmentally disabled patients already in those hospitals would be out of them by July 2015.

The settlement and other related agreements seek to address longstanding problems in the state’s mental health and developmental disabilities system.

The BHDD budget, approved by its board Monday, includes funds for housing support or rental assistance to more than 1,000 people; additional crisis teams and case managers; and employment and family support programs.

Much progress has been made on improving the mental health system, said the agency’s commissioner, Dr. Frank Shelp, at the board meeting. But he acknowledged the remaining challenges of upholding the settlement accord. “It’s still a heavy lift to bring it to closure over the next two and a half years,’’ he said.

BHDD is also planning two major new projects. It will request $11.6 million for an emergency psychiatric services center in metro Atlanta. The project would address the persistent problem of long waits in general hospitals’ emergency rooms for people needing state psychiatric services.

The department also will request $79 million to build two forensic units for criminal defendants with mental illness who have been found incompetent to stand trial, or not guilty by reason of insanity. The state currently has a waiting list of 122 for forensic services; many of these people are currently being held in local jails.

Still, the anticipated agency budget cuts could affect vital services, said the Georgia Association of Community Service Boards. These could include outpatient and medication services, developmental disability services, addictive diseases programs, and child and adolescent treatment, the organization said.

Separately, the Department of Community Health said Thursday that it would ask the governor’s office and the Legislature for a total of $192 million to address a Medicaid shortfall this fiscal year, and $326 million for the next fiscal year.

Similarly, Community Health will ask for $21 million and $33 million for shortfalls in the PeachCare program, which covers about 200,000 uninsured children of low- to middle-income parents.

Part of the PeachCare request comes from a projected increase of 42,000 children in the program – those switched by their parents from the state employees’ benefit plan under a new initiative.

Reasons for the deficits include the Legislature removing funds from Medicaid during the past General Assembly session, said Scott Frederking, budget director for Community Health.

Other causes include changes in the federal matching rate for these government insurance programs, and growth from enrollment and expenses. Medicaid currently serves about 1.5 million poor and disabled Georgians.

Community Health also said it received a $2.5 million federal grant to streamline the enrollment and renewal processes for people on Medicaid and PeachCare.

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Andy Miller

Andy Miller is editor and CEO of Georgia Health News

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