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PEF to Legislature: Don’t privatize critical public mental health services; reconsider staffing cuts, facility closures

By KATE MOSTACCIO

In written testimony submitted to the Mental Health Joint Legislative Budget Hearing Committee February 5, President Wayne Spence urged the state to reconsider privatizing public mental health services, facility closures and staffing cuts proposed in the 2020-2021 Executive Budget.

PEF members in mental health congregate settings and public-facing offices working directly with COVID patients have borne a disproportionate burden in serving the state’s neediest citizens during the pandemic.

“Unlike many of the essential employees in private industry, my members have received no recognition or remuneration for their selfless and dedicated service,” Spence said. “In fact, this proposed budget seeks to privatize the critical public services they provide, relocate their jobs to other regions of the state, and cut the health insurance benefits that they have earned as faithful and dedicated public servants.

“The most egregious of these cuts and closures occurs in the state’s already overburdened and undervalued programs that provide mental health services to New York’s most vulnerable citizens,” he wrote.

Spence said the state needs to develop greater capacity to deliver needed services and to address the current and future crises in a timely, efficient and cost-effective manner, which he argued can not be done with private contractors performing public services.

Closures of state facilities

Rockland Children’s Psychiatric Center

The state proposes to privatize some mental health services and close several state facilities to help balance this year’s budget. On the chopping block is Rockland Children’s Psychiatric Center, targeted for closure.

“This nine-year-old facility provides intensive, individualized inpatient and residential treatment for mostly low-income children and youth with serious mental health issues,” Spence wrote. “While the Executive Budget points to lower utilization, staff indicate that they receive several calls daily from area hospitals to accept severely ill individuals on either an outpatient or residential basis.”

With private providers strapped for resources, cases often fall to state facilities, Spence said. Rockland Children’s Psychiatric Center covers Orange, Putnam, Rockland, Ulster, Dutchess and Westchester counties – if it closes, youth needing inpatient services would have to travel to the Bronx campus of New York City Children’s Psychiatric Center for treatment.

“We cannot forget that the services provided by the state – especially those cost-intensive services rendered by OMH, OPWDD, OASAS and OCFS – are often the very last service option for people in serious crisis,” he said. “Without those services being accessible in every region of the state, many of these people would be left untreated, increasing the chances of interactions with the criminal justice system and other state or local social services providers.”

While the budget only specifically names Rockland Children’s Psychiatric Center, Spence noted the proposed budget also would authorize the Commissioner of Mental Health to unilaterally “close, consolidate, reduce, transfer or otherwise redesign services of hospitals, other facilities and programs operated by OMH and to implement significant reductions and reconfigurations.”

OMH has proposed seriously reducing beds and services across the state, including 292 inpatient, youth and forensic psychiatric beds – on top of the 99 beds eliminated in November and December of 2020.

“We urge the Legislature to reject this proposal, to maintain the continuity of services for the state’s most at-risk residents, and to require legislative oversight and authorization for any future facility closures, program consolidations and/or service reductions,” Spence wrote.

Proposed changes at OPWDD would separate families from staff they have come to rely on for sometimes years at a time.

“The budget also proposed to transition individuals with developmental disabilities in state-operated residences into voluntary-operated programs,” Spence stated. “This proposal, which is strictly advanced as a cost-saving measure, would separate clients and families from the staff who have cared for them for years.”

Disproportionate cuts to staff

In addition to facility and service cuts, Spence said this year’s proposed budget continues a decades-long policy of reducing staff at facilities that render services to the state’s most at-risk individuals.

“Under the budget proposal, staff will be reduced by 9 percent at OCFS and 3 percent at OMH from 2020 levels,” Spence wrote.

The testimony pointed out flaws of the state citing underutilization at facilities targeted for consolidation and closure.

COVID-19 has led to many individuals shying away from residential or other treatment for fear of contracting the virus. Additionally, management in some facilities targeted for closure has allegedly directed staff to reject placements.

“We believe that regional hospitals continue to seek placements of individuals in the state’s psychiatric programs,” Spence wrote. “It seems counterintuitive that during a global public health crisis, fewer persons would require psychiatric support at state facilities.”

Find other ways to close gap

Spence urged the Legislature to find other ways to close the budget gap and increase revenues.

“Multiple options have been advanced to increase income and other taxes on the state’s most affluent individuals so that everyone can share in the sacrifice to close this year’s budget gap,” Spence said. “New York state maintains the most qualified, highest caliber state workforce in the nation. Unfortunately, this budget proposal continues to undermine the state workforce by initiating plans to privatize and diminish the services that New Yorkers need.”

To read the full submitted testimony, click here.