Mental Health Advocates Fight Proposed Budget Cuts

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(Host) Mental health patients and their advocates were out in force at the Statehouse on Wednesday to speak out against budget cuts that they say will undermine many programs.

Legislative leaders were listening. And they say they’ll try to avoid some of the deeper reductions.

VPR’s John Dillon reports:

(Chanting "No more cuts, no more cuts!)

(Dillon) A huge crowd assembled outside the Statehouse. Many carried hand-lettered signs urging lawmakers to preserve mental health services.

Inside the building, many offered their own personal stories of how they’ve struggled to overcome their mental illness.

David DiLego of Burlington said psychiatric care and community-based services have allowed him to stay healthy.

(DiLego) "If these programs continue to be cut, there is a very clear consequence. People will die. People will commit suicide and, God forbid, may harm someone else."

(Dillon) Governor Peter Shumlin’s budget would cut about $11 million from mental health programs. The proposed cuts include a 5 percent reduction for community mental health agencies.  

The agencies say the cuts come on top of reductions made last year. They say if the latest cuts go through, they’ll be forced to lay off staff and reduce care to people in need. And an emergency room physician said the budget reductions will put an additional burden on community hospitals. Doctor Mark Depman is director of the emergency department at the Central Vermont Medical Center in Berlin.

(Depman) "Our reality here in Vermont, at least in Washington County, is that we have a big comfort zone, because we’ve got a great system that works. You’ve got a great system that works here, and you shouldn’t tinker with it."

(Dillon) Nineteen organizations have joined together to fight the proposed cuts. Floyd Nease is executive director of the Vermont Association for Mental Health.

(Nease) "Thirty years ago the state of Vermont made a fundamental policy change when they decided to close down Brandon Training School and the Vermont State Hospital. The folks you see here today would be in Brandon or would be in the State Hospital back 30 years ago. They’re being supported in the community. We promised we would support them in the community. This budget cut breaks that promise."

(Host) Governor Shumlin has said that the cuts are needed to deal with a projected $175 million deficit.

But legislative leaders may be pushing back. South Burlington Democrat Ann Pugh chairs the House Human Services Committee. She wants to add money back in the budget for mental health agencies and for programs that serve people with developmental disabilities.

(Pugh) "Restoring in particular these two areas is very high on our priority list in terms of both what is good for Vermont, what is good for Vermonters, what is good for employers, and what’s good for communities."

(Dillon) But Governor Shumlin is not backing down. He says the cuts are painful, but must be made in order to balance the budget.

For VPR News, I’m John Dillon in Montpelier.


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