As the April 1 budget deadline approaches, PEF is authoring a series of op-eds for various media outlets across the state fighting back against bad budget proposals. The first two have focused on the mental health crisis. Gov. Cuomo proposed closing Rockland Children’s Psychiatric Center, reducing capacity at the Western New York Psychiatric Center by more than 50 percent, and closing 266 beds across the system after already closing 99 beds in the final two months of 2020.
The Legislative and Communications Departments wrote this op-ed on President Spence’s behalf that was printed on Feb. 22 in The New York Daily News.
And later this month, the following op-ed will publish in the Gotham Gazette, written in partnership with In the Public Interest, a non-profit group assisting PEF with a campaign to highlight how the public sector is vital to helping New York State fund our future. Future op-eds are planned focusing on the public health crisis and the perils of contracting out work more efficiently and safely performed by state employees.
Don’t slash services during a mental health crisis
By Wayne Spence & Randi DiAntonio
New Yorkers have been living through the challenging effects of the worldwide pandemic for a year now. Many are suffering from new or aggravated mental health issues stemming from the lockdowns and the pandemic, while those with more chronic mental health issues, developmental disabilities and at-risk youth are facing limited treatment options caused by COVID-19 protocols and fewer state-funded treatment options. As we have seen in recent days with the subway attack in New York City, the failure to provide adequate state support, care and treatment for these individuals ultimately results in unnecessary tragedies. My members, state public employees, see the impact of this pandemic on the New Yorkers they serve daily.
Yet this year’s Executive Budget further exasperates an already troubling trend of capacity reductions, service cuts and the elimination of state-sponsored mental health and at-risk youth services in communities across the state. In lieu of increasing taxes by a small amount on billionaires, Gov. Cuomo proposes eliminating 800 state positions, including 446 positions at the Office of Mental Health (OMH) due to attrition, cutting nearly 300 inpatient beds for the mentally ill, outsourcing services for people with mental and developmental disabilities and closing several specialized, community-based residential rehabilitation programs for troubled youth.
A simple comparison of the 2010 and 2020 state Workforce Management Reports highlights the trend. Since Cuomo has taken office, staffing at OMH has declined 17%, while staffing levels at the state’s Office for People with Developmental Disabilities decreased 15% in that time frame. Overall, the strict hiring freeze the governor credits in his Executive Budget for controlling spending, has resulted in the loss of approximately 5,200 Full-Time Equivalent employees at agencies subject to executive control since the start of the fiscal year through Dec. 2020. The state workers he has repeatedly singled out as “heroes” of the pandemic are not being replaced when they retire or leave state service and are not incentivized with pay and benefits equivalent to what they can find in the private sector.
We can already see the impact of past cuts to these services in our communities: homeless and destitute veterans, youth and others with mental illness slip through the cracks and are left to scrape together shelter, food and treatment under increasingly more difficult circumstances. Even before the pandemic hit, 10.4% of adults in New York reported having experienced “serious psychological distress” according to a 2018 study by the Leonard Schaeffer Center for Health and Policy and Economics (LSCHPE). Since then, a report by the New York State Health Foundation found that 37% of New York residents reported poor mental health during the pandemic with the percentages rising for Hispanic (42%) and African-American (39%) New Yorkers. We also know from a Sept. 2020 study conducted by the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene that 14% of city residents reported having unmet needs for mental health services and another 15% reported having difficulty accessing services for their children.
So it’s clear that New Yorkers need the services provided by OMH and OPWDD more than ever. But there are other consequences as well. Cuts to mental health and other vital services are not only inhumane; they result in increased pressure and higher costs for county and municipal governments while increasing the burden on the entire criminal justice system. Another pre-pandemic study by the LSCHPE indicated that 15% of state prison and 26% of municipal jail inmates suffered from “serious psychological distress,” numbers far exceeding the non-incarcerated population (5%).
These proposed budget cuts correspond with other proposed cuts in support for local governments and the withholding of payments to private mental health providers. This entire proposal is a house of cards on top of which sit New York’s most vulnerable citizens.
A civilized society is measured by the care it affords to its most needy residents, not by the number of billionaires who flourish in it. In this time of crisis, we need to expand the resources available to support state-sponsored mental health and at-risk services so all New Yorkers have access to viable, comprehensive and long-term treatment and rehabilitation options. Look no further than the words of top Cuomo staffer Melissa DeRosa, who in a Feb. 10 call with lawmakers said, “there is a national mental health crisis going on in this country.”
That crisis requires a budget that reflects the challenges posed by the pandemic and addresses the long-term, systemic service cuts that have worsened the effects of this pandemic on so many needy and at-risk New Yorkers.