Providers: Cuts imperil most vulnerable

By John Laidler
Globe Correspondent / November 16, 2008
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Local human service agencies are voicing deep concerns over state budget cuts they warn could hamper their ability to serve some of the region's most vulnerable citizens.

Part of the more than $1 billion in midyear spending reductions Governor Deval Patrick announced last month to address the state deficit included steep cuts in programs serving people with mental illness, substance abuse, and other needs.

Locally, those cuts are already being acutely felt, according to agency officials, who have begun the task of closing down programs and laying off staff.

"This is probably the most serious financial crisis our industry has found itself in," said Paul O'Shea, president and CEO of Beverly-based Health and Education Services, which provides mental health, rape crisis, Head Start, and other services at 34 sites in the North Shore and Merrimack Valley regions.

O'Shea said his agency is losing $1 million through the state reductions, which will mean service cuts directly affecting 140 people and the elimination of 34.5 positions. "The cuts were really dramatic. They are affecting pretty much all the areas we provide services in," he said.

Among the cuts are an eight-bed residential program in Haverhill for emotionally disturbed children, scheduled to close at the end of this month.

Vicker V. DiGravio III, president and CEO of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Corporations of Massachusetts, said the state's human service industry "is already struggling, so any time there are cuts it just makes providers' jobs that much more difficult."

DiGravio said the impact on agencies providing mental health services is "very grave," noting that they are going to mean a loss of services statewide for 2,600 adults. "The cuts are going to basically create situations where people are not going to have the structured environments they've depended on for many years," said DiGravio, who contends that mental health services suffered a disproportionate cut in funding.

Bridgewell, a Lynnfield-based agency that serves about 3,000 people with developmental and psychiatric disabilities, is losing $622,384.

According to agency CEO Bob Stearns, four programs are being eliminated, which will mean a loss of services for 145 people with severe and persistent mental illness. Another 135 will be impacted by a reduction in hours in the Lynn Friendship Club, a social group for people with psychiatric disabilities. Twenty jobs are being cut.

Set to be closed are an adult day rehabilitation program in Lowell; an expressive therapy and vocational training program in Lynn; and two programs in Salem, one for life skills education and an employment resources center.

"I have never personally experienced anything of this magnitude - cuts that totally eliminated programs," said Stearns, who has been in the human service field in Massachusetts for more than three decades.

"Our issue is not the loss of revenue to the organization. It's the individuals and the services and the employees we really have no options for," he said.

Another organization hit by the cuts is the Chelsea-based North Suffolk Mental Health Association, which provides an array of services to clients with developmental disabilities, substance abuse, and mental illness in Chelsea, East Boston, Revere, and Winthrop.

According to Jackie Moore, the association's CEO, the agency is losing $375,000 in funding, which will mean the Dec. 31 closing of a day rehabilitation program in Chelsea serving 80 clients with mental illness.

Moore said no one doubts the magnitude of the state's budget problems and the need to make significant reductions. "But people with mental illness should not be bearing the burden of the budget cuts," she said. "We have significant concerns about what is going to happen with our folks."

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