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Tight budget could affect state mental health services

Dependents fear losing some important programs

Posted: February 20, 2009 1:05 a.m.
Updated: February 20, 2009 4:55 a.m.

Kathy Ward fears some of the programs funded by the Mental Health Services Act could disappear and leave her out on the street under the new state budget.


Kathy Ward would be dead without the help she gets at the Santa Clarita Valley Mental Health Center.

"I would either be institutionalized or dead," the 54-year-old woman said. "It's serious. Luckily, I knew about the programs there. I don't know what I would have done. I wouldn't have made it through."

But some of the programs funded by the Mental Health Services Act could disappear and leave her out on the street under the state budget unveiled Thursday, she said.

For Ward and other mental health sufferers, it means $226 million will be stripped from the act's fund this year and $234 million next year with the whole deal put on a May ballot measure.

"I don't know what part of the MHSA they'll take," said Dr. Marvin J. Southard, director of the L.A. County Department of Mental Health. "The devil is in the details. It all depends on how they take it and from where they'll take it."

What hangs in the balance are more than 39,000 Los Angeles County residents like Ward who rely on mental health counseling.

Ward, who moved from Mississippi with a long history of mental suffering and drug addiction, and tried to commit suicide two years ago, suffers from "major clinical depression," she said. "Without somebody helping me, there's no way I could make it."

On Thursday, she led a peer-counseling group called Project Return at the Santa Clarita Valley Mental Health Center, which opened on Cinema Drive in November.

Ward gets regular help from a trained therapist at the center and additional job-finding help from a second counselor. At the same time, she helps others in need by heading Project Return - people held together as a group by the bond of suffering.

As members snacked on shared Girl Scout cookies and home-wrapped sandwiches, conversation hinged on the pending $500,000 in cuts to mental health services.

Toni Otis is Project Return's coordinator. She suffered a mental breakdown in 2003 and runs six other similar peer counseling groups.

"The need is definitely out there with a lot of our clients just struggling to have jobs and get support," she said Thursday.

In 2004, the people of California voted for Proposition 63, which would tax the income of between 25,000 to 30,000 California millionaires by 1 percent.

It has saved the people of California billions in taxpayer dollars that would otherwise be needed to pay for more law enforcement, jail, prisons, lock-up hospital facilities, crisis intervention, foster care, emergency care and other costly public services, Southard said.

By diverting MHSA funds, the governor's budget proposal risks turning away 39,208 Los Angeles County residents from community services and putting them back in costly institutions or out on the street, he said.

Money generated by the Act would go to help a half dozen people out of every 100 Californians who suffer from serious mental illness.

"Arnold is raiding Prop 63 in order to backfill the budget," said Carole Lutness, a psychiatric social worker for the Department of Mental Health.

Lutness helps and works with people such as Ward, Otis and others.

The state plans to take close to $500 million from the MHSA to pay what it already owes counties and cities under the Early Periodic Screening Diagnosis and Treatment program, which is the way Medi-Cal pays for the cost of medical health care for children.

Putting the transfer to a ballot vote pits children against the mentally ill.

"It's vicious, callous and manipulative that the governor is putting two very vulnerable groups of people against each other," Lutness said.


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