Mental hygiene budget hearing unveils many hot topics
Story and photo by DEBORAH A. MILES
In testimony after testimony at a joint legislative public hearing concerning the 2017-2018 NYS Executive Budget proposal on mental hygiene, speakers echoed the need to recruit and retain a qualified workforce to care for those who suffer from mental illness or developmental disabilities.
The state Senators and Assembly members listened intently in the large hearing room at the Legislative Office Building in Albany as commissioners and executive directors raised the issue of workforce enhancement, many pointing out that the minimum wage for a caregiver is less than someone who works at a fast food restaurant.
Another topic that has advanced to center stage in the mental health field is the role the state Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (DOCCS) plays in housing mentally ill inmates. See related story
Virginia Davey, PEF co-chair of the Joint state Office of Mental Health Labor-Management Committee, testified, “One of OMH’s most recent efforts to shift patient care from OMH hospitals to DOCCS facilities is not viewed as one that fully appreciates the mental health needs of the individuals who require mental health treatment. PEF, having several experts among its ranks who work for both OMH and DOCCS, believes that patients awaiting restoration to competency are best served when they receive services that are not found behind the razor-wire fences of a jail or prison.
“PEF suggests the Executive Budget include $850,000 to assist OMH in improving the training and infrastructure for providing the same treatment within the nurturing walls of OMH facilities. This allocation of funds would allow for the cross-training of professionals to better provide services to patients who have served jail or prison terms, when they require ongoing mental health treatment.”
Davey also spoke about the state downsizing its OMH workforce to levels that cannot accommodate an ever-increasing demand for services, and how it has expanded OMH services in the community with private providers.
“There is no doubt that there has been an exhaustive expansion of community-based services. However, there have also been many legitimate questions and concerns brought forth regarding whether the services provided are of an improved quality value. We ask that the committee seek more concrete knowledge of these assertions and that it hold the governor and OMH to a high standard of proof that these claims are consistent with what is happening at the ground level. We cannot get this wrong, as people’s lives depend on us getting it right,” Davey said.
Ed Snow, PEF chair of the state Office for People With Developmental Disabilities Joint Labor-Management Committee, also focused on the state’s privatization of services.
“The concern of all our professional employees is the push toward privatization and getting people out of specialized beds. When you push so hard to get to your goal, you lose something along the way. Our members are concerned when that happens. People are being put in jeopardy, and we need a better plan so we can safeguard our communities and the people we are serving. It is great when people can move out of an institution and live in the community. That is the goal. But the agency is pushing too hard to make this happen,” Snow said.
The state Justice Center for the Protection of People with Special Needs was another hot topic at the hearing.
Snow provided the lawmakers with an example of how the Justice Center needs to be refined, as unfounded allegations are becoming too frequent and problematic to all involved.
“Money is squandered investigating
baseless claims that tend to be so absurd there is no way they could be accurate. At Sunmount DDSO, nine different staff people, all women, were alleged to have a sexual encounter with a male individual in a common hallway with at least three other onlookers. The Justice Center investigated. All nine staff members were placed on restrictive duty and interrogated. These cases put a burden on the system, disrupt services to others in need of care, plus incur the fiscal cost of replacement staff and increase emotional stress to all involved,” Snow said.
Children’s PC merger
Near the onset of the hearing, state Sen. Patrick Gallivan brought up the merger of the Western New York Children’s Psychiatric Center in West Seneca with the all-adult Buffalo Psychiatric Center, an OMH plan that has been vehemently opposed by PEF.
“The one thing the governor has called for is to remove 16- and 17-year-olds from adult prisons, and get them into a different building away from the adults. I can’t understand how the governor can give these juveniles their own facility, while at the same time, close the West Seneca Children’s Psychiatric Center where we have kids who are among the most troubled in the state. The professionals working there are among the best in the state. We are putting these children back into an institution they were removed from 40 years ago because the experts, at the time, said they should be separated. I am troubled by this. I have yet to hear any clinical reason for it to take place. No one has been able to present why these children would be better off in an adult setting. Many have stood up and made an appeal to you, (OMH) Commissioner Sullivan, to keep West Seneca open. I’ve heard from children, former patients, families, the professionals who work there, experts in mental health, members of the community and the entire Western NY legislative delegation. How can this be done when there are so many opposed? There is no reason for it,” Gallivan stated.
Sullivan responded, “By doing it, we are enabling more than $3 million in investing in community services that are desperately needed. We want to make those health care dollars reach as many people as possible while still providing quality care.”
THeCOMMUNICATOR – March 2017 Contents – PDF