“The safety net is stretched to the max.’’
Judy Fitzgerald, commissioner of the agency that oversees mental health and substance abuse services, gave that stark assessment in January to state legislators who were considering budget cuts to her department.
Now, even deeper cuts are on the table.
Georgia’s budget plans of just a few months ago have been overturned by the economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. The state Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities last week outlined $172 million in budget reductions for the upcoming fiscal year.
The recommendations come as state agencies respond to Gov. Brian Kemp’s mandate to find ways to reduce spending by 14%.
Georgia Senate budget subcommittees will take up the recommendations from agency leaders this week.
“We have to deal with the cards we have on the table right now,” said the new Senate Appropriations Committee chairman, Blake Tillery, R-Vidalia, according to the Capitol Beat News Service.
The cuts loom even as the coronavirus crisis has sparked new mental health stresses among Americans.
A Kaiser Family Foundation poll found more than half of Americans — 56% — reported that worry or stress related to the outbreak has led to at least one negative mental health effect.
Another report, from the Well Being Trust, said the pandemic could lead to 75,000 additional “deaths of despair” from drug and alcohol misuse and suicide due to unemployment, social isolation and fears about the virus. The DBHDD budget includes reductions of:
♦ $6 million for school-based Apex mental health services.
♦ $3 million for the Marcus Autism Center.
♦ $10 million for adult mental health services.
$13 million for family support services for people with developmental disabilities♦ .
The budget recommendations as outlined “will increase the costs down the road for increased ER visits, homelessness, institutionalization and incarceration,’’ said Susan Goico, an Atlanta Legal Aid attorney.
The properties of closed hospitals in Rome and Thomasville will not be adapted for other use but will be left idle, for a savings of $2.5 million.
Agency employees will have furloughs of 24 days. Dozens of jobs will be eliminated, but it is believed that many of these positions are currently vacant.
Advocacy groups, when asked about the recommended cuts, predicted many negative consequences.
“We know that prior to the pandemic, more than 40% of children and youth were not able to access the mental health services they need, and many kids with developmental disabilities likewise struggled to access services and supports,’’ said Polly McKinney of advocacy group Voices for Georgia’s Children.
“The state, however, was starting to make significant progress in addressing these needs with school-based health and school-based mental health, both of which improve kids’ life trajectories, are more cost-effective, and actually save lives.’’
Many children and youths will return to school while dealing with mental health challenges, McKinney added. “We just hope that as our lawmakers wrestle with this economic downturn that they will keep kids front of mind” when they work through the budget.
Georgia’s renowned peer services for mental health will see significant cuts, as will drug treatment courts.
“Social isolation, unemployment, loss of health insurance, food insecurities and other precipitating risk factors will likely exacerbate mental health [needs] for more Georgians and increase the number of individuals who will need treatment and crisis support to address suicide and substance abuse,’’ said Jewell Gooding, executive director for Mental Health America of Georgia.
For people in substance abuse recovery, a range of services will be pared, including residential beds for people in treatment.
“They are Death Star-like blows to the Georgia recovery community which will cost lives, increase crime, hurt families, weaken the workforce and threaten jobs,’’ said Neil Campbell, executive director of the Georgia Council on Substance Abuse.
Isolation is the No. 1 factor that hampers recovery from addiction and mental illness, Campbell said.
“Combined with stress, anxiety, and uncertainty, it is essential Georgia address the inevitable mental illness and [addiction] recovery issues which will grow exponentially as a result of the current pandemic,’’ she added.
“There are over 800,000 people across Georgia in recovery from addiction who can attest to the benefits of the types of services and supports that are apparently on the chopping block.’’
While Mercy Care Rome has changed how it takes care of its clients and patients, there also have been changes to its senior citizen employment program.
The Senior Community Service Employment Program serves 13 counties in the Northwest Georgia region by helping low-income residents over age 55 find jobs. Participants work on rebuilding their skills and self-confidence while earning a modest income. The main goal is to help their clients reenter the work force.
Rachael Hunton is the senior manager for SCSEP. The program is one of many that Mercy Care redesigned once COVID-19 hit Northwest Georgia and they had to close their facilities.
Seniors in the program received employment workbooks to complete while they quarantine at home. The assignments ranged in topics, such as employment skills, nutrition, handling depression and anxiety, meditation and feeling isolated.
Some of the program’s participants also had the option of working on crafts to help others in the community. Their work include sewing face masks, creating dementia-friendly sensory blankets, painting rocks and building birdhouses and flower pots.
“It is amazing to see their commitment and compassion for others when they, themselves, are the ones that are vulnerable during these times,” Hunton said.
Mildred Cordle, 83, is a senior employee who has gone above and beyond, Hunton said. She has helped sew and deliver over 500 donated face masks to facilities around the region — including her home county of Chattooga, as well as Floyd.
Cordle drives up to a building, pops open her trunk containing bags of sealed homemade masks and lets the people collect a bag. They close the trunk and she goes to her next stop.
“Ms. Cordle is only one of many Mercy Care senior employees that are going that extra mile to help others,” Hunton said.
May is Older Americans Month in the United States and this year’s theme, set by the Administration of Community Living, is “Make Your Mark.” The message behind the theme is encouraging and celebrating the contributions by older adults that have impacted local communities.
“Today is not one of those days we can just let go,” Army veteran John Fortune said at the beginning of the Rome Exchange Club’s Memorial Day ceremony.
The sun beat down on the spaced out crowd of 40 people, many in face masks, at Coosa Valley Fairgrounds as Fortune went over the importance of the day of remembrance.
Exchange Club members passed out paper poppies for attendees to wear to honor those who have died defending the country.
“The reason why we’re here is that our fallen heroes have paid that price,” Fortune said. “We have social distancing, we have some challenges, but we are not forgetting those who have fallen for us.”
Fortune recognized two Gold Star Mothers at the event as well, Lynn Napoli and Jan Johnson.
Napoli is from Jasper and had traveled to Rome for the Memorial Day service. Her son Sgt. David Collins died in Iraq on April 9, 2006, during his second tour. Napoli said her son had wanted to join the military ever since he was a young boy.
Johnson met her through Gold Star Mothers and invited her out to the event since there wasn’t a ceremony in Jasper due to the coronavirus outbreak. Johnson’s son, Specialist Justin Johnson, died on April 10, 2004, in Iraq and is buried at Myrtle Hill Cemetery.
Air Force Maj. Bill King played “Taps” as the American Legion Post 5 Honor Guard performed a 21-gun salute and the Exchange Club’s Americanism Committee laid wreaths by the flag in honor of the fallen soldiers. Veteran Howard Cothran also laid a wreath in honor of those who have received a Purple Heart for injuries sustained in battle.
King had also performed “Taps” and laid a wreath at Myrtle Hill Cemetery earlier Monday.
The entire ceremony was about 10 minutes long, but attendees left the fairgrounds with some words from Fortune.
“If you took pictures, put them on your Facebook to show your friends that on a small hill in Rome, Georgia, we didn’t forget this day.”
About two dozen Romans spread out at the intersection of Third Avenue and Broad Street Monday morning to commemorate Memorial Day.
The Shanklin-Attaway American Legion Post 5 Honor Guard fired a 21-gun salute and Jerry Kichler bugled “Taps” during the short service adjusted to take into account the COVID-19 outbreak.
Buck Dempsey, who posted the American flag during the ceremony, recalled his enlistment in the Army 64 years ago.
He served from 1956 through 1959 during what some might have considered the height of the Cold War tensions. Most of his time was spent at bases in Europe and the potential for conflict with Russia was never far from his mind.
“Greater love has no one more than this — that he lays down his life for his friends,” said Selena Tilly of the tourism office, quoting verse from John 15:13.
It was a sentiment felt by many as they honored the nation’s fallen defenders.
Herschel Johnson served two stints with the Georgia Army National Guard. Those were the days when the Rome unit was part of a tank unit.
“We got mobilized during Desert Storm and went to Fort Stewart and did some training,” Johnson said. “Then we went to the National Training Center out in California.”
Jerry Kichler, an Air Force veteran of some 20 years between 1967 and 1987, spent time in Thailand during the Vietnam War.
He said the only time that he had any real fears of not making it home were three occasions when there were credible threats of an attack on his base.
Eddie Hines, commander of the Shanklin-Attaway post, gave thanks to the people who turned out for the ceremony in the wake of a pandemic.
“Today, when you go home and you’re cooking those hamburgers — drinking a cold beer if you want to — take a second and remember what today is all about,” Hines said.
He reminded the spectators about the plaques on display in Rotary Plaza overlooking the Oostanaula River between the Forum River Center and the Floyd County Judicial Building. They list the names of every Floyd County resident killed during service from World War I through the conflict in Afghanistan.