Howard Center cuts jobs, services in tight budget year

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(Host) The Howard Center for Human Services announced on Tuesday that it will cut up to 40 jobs and scale back a number of mental health services in Chittenden County. The cuts are a result of a nearly $2 million shortfall, which Howard Center officials say is due to years of state underfunding.

VPR’s Steve Zind reports.

(Zind) Todd Centybear points to a chart showing how Vermont’s mental health services have fared over the past six years of state budgets.

(Centybear) “Zero, zero, zero, 1.5 percent, five percent and then a cut of three percent. Year after year, after year.”

(Zind) Centybear is the executive director of the Howard Center. He joined a group of clearly frustrated mental health providers in announcing the proposed cuts. The Howard Center programs affected include substance abuse services, developmental disability programs, emergency services, and treatment for people with severe mental illness.

The Douglas administration’s proposed state budget includes a one percent increase for mental health services. But mental health advocates say that isn’t even enough to maintain present services. Community mental health agencies around the state say they’re facing the same kinds of cuts being contemplated by the Howard Center.

William Alexander heads Lamoille County Mental Health Services. Alexander says a one percent increase amounts to about $70,000 for his agency.

(Alexander) “Our health insurance went up $125,000 last year. All of our insurance went up $320,000. So $70,000 doesn’t even cover infrastructure, and our employees didn’t get raises last year.”

(Zind) Alexander says Lamoille County Mental Health has already cut four staff positions. He says the next round of cuts will hit services.

William Leckerling, president of the Howard Center Board, says while much attention is being paid to suicides at VSH – the Vermont State Hospital – and in state prisons, the community-based mental health system is unraveling. He says that will have a much more devastating impact.

(Leckerling) “What is going to happen, whether it be out in the open or behind closed doors in families in crisis or people committing suicide who need not commit suicide is a devastating crisis and it’s a tragedy.”

(Zind) Leckerling says the state has also failed to live up to a promise to provide enough money to operate Vermont’s only methadone clinic, which is run by the Howard Center.

Todd Centybear says, ultimately, if services for the mentally ill, the developmentally disabled and people with substance abuse problems are cut the costs to the state will be much higher.

(Centybear) “Because the people we won’t be able to serve will end up in VSH, they’ll end up in our correctional centers, they’ll end up in our emergency rooms, they’ll end up in private physicians’ offices.”

(Zind) Mental Health advocates say the system needs a five percent budget increase just to maintain current services. The House has proposed a two percent increase in its budget which has been sent on to the Senate.

Governor Jim Douglas says he recognizes the difficulties the state’s mental health care providers face, but state revenues are tight. Douglas says he wants to sit down with providers to find ways to restructure Vermont’s system of delivering mental health care.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Steve Zind.

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