Children and families face cuts in mental health services

Some behavioral therapists say the state is about to put at-risk children in an even riskier situation. It is a situation many therapists and service providers feel was forced upon them at the last minute, but the state says it is running out of time to make major cuts.

"Ideally we wouldn't make cuts at all, but what we are trying to do is make cuts that protect those that are most in need and still leave service arrays available for everyone," said Deputy Commissioner Carrie Slatton-Hodges with the Oklahoma Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services.

The proposed rule change would limit who is eligible to receive behavioral health rehabilitative services in the future. Slatton-Hodges says the program cuts could make up a $20-million hole in the agency's budget. The shortfall was due to the fact the agency needed that much more money in order to maintain the level of services they provide to Oklahomans in need.

"Anytime you're making cuts to a program there are going to be people who are not going to receive the service they did before," Slatton-Hodges told Fox 25. The OKDMHSAS says the program was selected, in part, because it had not cut down on hospitalizations like many had predicted when the Medicaid-funded program was expanded several years ago.

However many service providers feel the rule change was rushed and little notice was given to those who provide rehabilitative services to children and families.

"It would mean that the families that we service would not get the same quality of care as they are receiving now," said Cheryl Hunter-Wilson, the executive director of Life Resources Children and Family Services.

Hunter-Wilson says the changes could force some parents to wait longer for their children to get help, or could lead to more children being hospitalized in order to meet the stricter requirements. Those hospital stays would also fall back on the state to pay for.

"You're talking about children that may have to go into the hospital, but then you think about those that we help keep out of the prison system," Hunter-Wilson told Fox 25.

Providing for mental health services has been a priority promoted by the governor this past year. A spokesman for her office sent us the following response regarding the budget situation and proposed cuts to OKDMHSAS:

"Oklahoma state government faced a $188 million budget shortfall this year. That shortfall required almost every agency to absorb significant budget cuts. The Department of Mental Health was not one of the agencies that got cut; in fact, it received a $2.2 million increase. It received that increase after intense lobbying from Governor Fallin, who believes that mental health is a priority issue for the state of Oklahoma," Spokesman Alex Weintz said in an email.

"Where the Department of Mental Health (as well as the Department of Human Services) did lose funding, however, was in the form of federal FMAP funds. Unfortunately, President Obama's decision to cut Oklahoma's FMAP funds may reduce services in mental health as well as health services for poor Oklahomans."

The rule change still has to be approved by the Oklahoma Health Care Authority. The first step in that process begins Wednesday afternoon and is open to the public for comment.

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