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Cuts for state’s social programs less drastic than expected but level of funding a concerncomment (0)

May 24, 2012

By Sondra Washington

Alabama’s social programs “barely averted disaster” this year as lawmakers passed the 2013 general fund budget bill May 16. For weeks, various leaders of the states’ social programs expected extensive cuts to mental health and youth services, as well as to Medicaid and the Department of Human Resources (DHR), all of which have steadily lost funding over the past several years.

At risk of taking the greatest hit in the upcoming fiscal year was Alabama’s Medicaid program, according to Kimble Forrister, state coordinator of Alabama Arise, an advocacy coalition and sister organization of Arise Citizens’ Policy Project.

“They (state lawmakers) were faced with the possibility of the end of Medicaid of Alabama,” Forrister said. “The (Alabama) House had approved only $400 million for Medicaid and if they had funded it at $400 million the federal government would have pulled out of our program and that would have had dire consequences for our hospitals especially Children’s Hospital. The rest of the state health system would be put at risk without Medicaid.”

According to Forrister, lawmakers have known for 10 years that Medicaid needs new taxes or revenue streams.

“Alabama’s Medicaid System is cut to the bone and so the Legislature flirted with a tobacco tax that could have filled the gap, and then they ultimately decided to raid our children’s piggy bank rather than raise taxes,” Forrister noted. “When I say the children’s piggy bank, I mean the Alabama Trust Fund that has the oil and gas revenues in it. They are diverting funds from it — that trust fund that our grandchildren were supposed to benefit from the earnings of — and this generation is taking money from that fund instead of paying their own bills.”

But according to Tom Holmes, executive director of The Arc of Alabama, lack of adequate funding from some source could have been a life or death matter for a number of Alabamians.

“If you discontinue those (services) all together you are affecting if people survive or not,” he said. “Unless there is some new revenue … we just don’t have enough resources to provide for those basic services whether they are DHR, youth services, public health or mental health. … We as Alabamians like to think we are the state that has the lowest taxes in the country, and we brag about that, but what it means is we don’t provide some of the basic services that our people need.”

Leaders of other Alabama social programs will also have to determine how to stretch their allotted funds to continue providing services to needy people. 

“We were particularly concerned about mental health, Department of Human Resources and corrections,” Forrister said. “We are already at risk of a court sanction because of overcrowding in our prisons. The DHR commissioner, Nancy Buckner, is frantically looking for money because she is not sure there is enough money to keep the cash welfare program afloat. … We already limit a mom with two kids to $215 a month. … Compared to the disaster we expected, we are breathing a sigh of relief, but none of these programs have enough money to function properly.”

The Department of Youth Services was allotted a little more than $7 million for 2013 as opposed to the nearly $11 million lawmakers designated for 2012. DHR will receive more than $62.5 million in 2013, which is about $15 million less than the $87 million lawmakers authorized for 2012. The Department of Mental Health general fund budget for 2013 was trimmed about $13 million from 2012’s $116 million allocation.

In February, The Arc of Alabama held a Mental Health and Disabilities Legislative Day in Montgomery to draw attention to the backlash expected from further funding cuts for these services. Holmes initially announced that the department was “facing a proposed 25 percent funding cut for fiscal year 2013,” which he said in a press release would be “the most serious threat in our lifetime to our state’s ability to provide services to the individuals it serves.”  

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), such a cut would have been one more hit to an already suffering social program. In November 2011, the organization reported that Alabama’s general fund mental health budget has dropped 36 percent since 2009, leaving the state second in the country only to South Carolina in these types of actions. In that same report, NAMI stated that Alabama’s average of state mental health spending per capita is $77, while the U.S. average is $122.

But in the end, the department is only facing a 10 percent reduction.

“It is a lot better than what we thought might have happened,” Holmes said. “We should be able to maintain services for the next year or so to the current number of people in the mental health system. Basically it means that there may be more people (in need of services). ... Those who don’t get served will wind up in other services — in jails or homeless or on the streets. … We just have to continue to educate the legislators and governor and general public, and hopefully they will understand a little better what the need is and try to come up with some solutions whether that be more state funding or other ways.”

While advocacy groups work to educate the public, Christians also have a role to play, said Jim Dill, executive director of Alabama Council of Community Mental Health Boards “In biblical terms, we are commanded ‘to serve the least of these’ among us,” Dill noted. “If the state continues to dismantle the safety net programs, then we are not serving the least of those among us. We are turning our backs on them.”

This is really not a debate over who is responsible, the church or the government, he added.

“The needs are so great among so many people that churches alone, charities alone, nor government alone can get the job done. It takes all of us working together.

“There should be complimentary roles that exist between church and state in terms of meeting the needs of the least among us.” 

(Jennifer Davis Rash contributed)

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