Local News

Budget cuts hitting mental health with 'vengeance'

Posted October 1, 2009 6:08 p.m. EDT
Updated October 7, 2009 10:14 a.m. EDT

— Diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia, bi-polar disorder and social anxiety disorder, Vinh Gazoo has been in a psychiatric hospital five times.

Recently released from jail after a six-month sentence stemming from a crime resulting from his mental health issues, Gazoo says he now survives week to week because of the Mental Health Association in North Carolina.

A nonprofit association that helps mental health patients, the organization helps pay for his medication. Its employees and volunteers drive him to doctor's appointments and therapy sessions.

Gazoo was notified this week that those services have been dropped because of state budget cuts.

The $19 billion state budget resulted in a nearly 12.75 percent or $738 million decrease in the Department of Health and Human Services' anticipated $5.54 billion budget for the fiscal year.

About $75 million of DHHS's community services $390 million budget, which helps fund the Mental Health Association was cut, according to executive director John Tote.

"The cuts we have been waiting on from the General Assembly, they're here now, and they're hitting with a vengeance," he said.

Now, the Mental Health Association is laying off approximately 40 percent of its employees.

"Those 175 folks – in the positions they have – affect the lives of about 2,000 individuals across the state (who have) significant mental illness," Tote said.

He estimates approximately 4,000 mental health providers across the state will soon be out of work. The result, he says, will be thousands of patients without services.

Tote blames lawmakers, saying they were much more concerned with politics than providing services for DHHS.

Rep. Verla Insko, D-Orange, who serves on the state House Appropriations Subcommittee on Health and Human Services and also chairs the mental health legislative committee, agrees.

Insko says she doesn't think most lawmakers fully grasped the budget cuts and the impact they would have. For many people with mental illness, she says, there is no safety net other than emergency rooms and mental hospitals.

"As an advocate, it's galling," Tote said. "As a person, it's sad – terribly sad."

For Gazoo – now, his option is a walk-in clinic, but he says he has no way to pay for the services he needs and no way to get there. He says he'll likely either wind up back in jail or in a psychiatric facility.

"That's the two choices I have, because without my medication, I get pretty violent," he said.