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Mental Health Advocates Feeling Dire: Budget Talks Down to the Wire

September 30, 2009

LANSING, Mich. - In the crush of state budget cuts, some of Michigan's Medicaid patients who rely on psychiatric medications risk losing access to their prescriptions. As lawmakers scramble for ways to balance the budget, they are considering repealing a law that allows open access to prescription psychiatric drugs for those on Medicaid. Only patients who are currently on drug treatment plans would be allowed to continue.

The results of such cuts could be disastrous for those who struggle with mental illness, says Sherri Solomon, executive director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness Michigan chapter (NAMI-Michigan), including increased unemployment and higher incarceration rates. She believes restricting Medicaid patients' access to the medications they need will cost the state far more in the long run.

"It's pay now or pay later. Uncontrolled symptoms lead to more costs through increased E.R., hospitalization, potential incarcerations, homelessness."

Those who support the idea of limiting open access to psychiatric drugs for Medicare recipients say it could save the state about $6 million a year. NAMI-Michigan is sponsoring a petition drive asking legislators to reconsider the proposal.

In addition to reducing availability of psychiatric medications, some lawmakers also suggest trimming the general fund budget for community mental health programs by $40 million to $60 million. Between the two measures, warns Solomon, low-income residents with mental illnesses would have few resources.

"They would have money only for emergency services and possibly hospitalization, but all other services would have to be eliminated."

While Michigan's nine mental health courts across the state have been spared the budget axe thanks to federal funds, Solomon believes the highly-touted alternative sentencing courts would be rendered ineffective without giving judges the resources to order prescription drug treatment and other programs for low-income offenders.

Amy Miller/Laura Thornquist, Public News Service - MI