Mental health funding takes a hit

"It's belt tightening time again for mental health services on Whidbey. That means more cuts in local staff and the closing of an office in Clinton. The reductions follow similar staff cuts and the elimination of the county's youth respite center two months ago. All the cuts have been made to save money in an age of increased costs and insufficient funding from the Legislature, said Kris Laaninen, chief executive officer of Community Mental Health, the Mount Vernon-based organization that oversees mental health services in Island, Skagit and San Juan counties.The most recent cuts will reduce Community Mental Health's costs by $61,000 per month. For the time being that will be enough, Laaninen said.Three island mental health workers, including one based in Oak Harbor, were given notice Friday that their positions were being eliminated. They included one part-time clinician, one child therapist and one vocational trainer. In addition, the position of Director of Vocational Services held by Steve Daggett, who works out of Coupeville, was cut. Daggett will now work only under a limited consulting contract.The agency is also closing an outpatient office in Clinton. Laaninen said the Clinton office has been set for closure ever since the new Family Resource Center opened in Langley. Community Mental Health will continue to operate offices in Oak Harbor, Coupeville, Maxwelton and Ken's Corner.Most of the $61,000 in cuts will come from off island, with Skagit County taking the biggest hits. One major cut puts much of Community Mental Health's accounting services, including payroll and billing, in the hands of an outside contractor rather than being handled by in-house personnel. That change will result in a savings of nearly $6,500 per month.Cuts to mental health services have been going on since the late 1980s when the state Legislature made changes in the way mental health dollars were paid out. Lawmakers put more emphasis on treating people with the greatest assessed need and less on non-acute patient care. Funding for local agencies was reduced further in 1997 when a new Medicaid funding formula was introduced. Laaninen said more cuts may be needed but they are getting harder to make.We do believe we're coming to the end of our ability to keep doing this, she said. We're pretty much down to a place where we can't fulfil the primary requirements of our contract.She said that as population in the area increases the number of people needing mental health services increases. Meanwhile, the costs of providing those services are growing as well.But revenue dedicated by the Legislature continues to remain flat, said Laaninen. With rising costs and flat revenue we can't keep up."

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