Panel hears testimony on restoring human-service spending

Posted at 9:43 PM, Aug 06, 2018
and last updated 2018-08-07 00:19:07-04

HELENA – Patients, health-care providers and others told a legislative panel Monday that state funding for many community-based services for the poor and disabled not only needs restoring, but perhaps some revisions and increases as well.

“When I started here in 2012, we had 140 full-time employees,” said Barbara Mettler, executive director of the South Central Montana Regional Mental Health Center in Billings. “We’re down to 97, which at least 25 have been cut since all of these cuts were instituted.”

Mettler and dozens of other people from across the state testified at a special hearing Monday at the Capitol, about where the Bullock administration should restore at least $30 million in human-service cuts made earlier this year.

The cuts, which began late last year, were in response to a state budget crisis.

But state revenues have rebounded in the past several months, enabling Gov. Steve Bullock to restore funding for many state agencies and programs this year.

Bullock has said he’ll decide by Sept. 1 where to restore the money and that his priority will be programs that help “vulnerable Montanans.”

The legislative Children, Families, Health and Human Services Interim Committee held a hearing Monday to give the public a chance to weigh in on the restoration decisions.

“This is about moving forward,” said Sen. Diane Sands, D-Missoula. “This is one of your opportunities to tell the (state) and us how you would like to see the limited funding that’s going to go back into this restoration expended. …

“Let’s not kid ourselves. You cannot make whole the programs that were devastated. … That’s not going to happen.”

The chair of the panel, Sen. Mary Caferro, D-Helena, also made it clear that the panel has no authority to direct the governor what to do. But she said she hopes lawmakers will use the information from Monday to consider improving funding during the 2019 Legislature.

“We’ll have our opportunity to put our fingerprints on the budget,” she said.

Services for the mentally ill took some of the biggest cuts, including “case management,” which helps low-income mentally ill people navigate available services, and cuts in rates for group therapy, alcohol and drug treatment and caseload limits.

Mettler said the South Central Montana center serves 15,000 people, most of which are seriously mentally ill, and without the center, “they’d be hard-pressed to go into the community and find someone who could provide the services that we can.”

The center was $49,000 in the black last year, but after the cuts in state funding, it’s $158,000 in the red, she said.

“If we end up having to close our doors, I don’t know where those 15,000 people are going to go,” Mettler said. “We’re out of reserves, we’re out of savings, we’re laying people off.”

Community mental-health and developmentally disabled providers also sued the Bullock administration last week in state court, saying the process for the budget cuts didn’t follow state law.

Late last week, state District Judge James Reynolds of Helena issued a temporary order that said the budget cuts must be restored, at least until he holds a hearing Aug. 15 on whether his order should be made permanent, while the case proceeds.