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Advocate: Brewer Plan Threatens AZ Mental Health System

October 22, 2009

PHOENIX - Gov. Jan Brewer is proposing that mental health care for thousands of Arizonans be taken over by AHCCCS (Access), the state's Medicaid program, with thousands more shifted to an undefined pilot program for the seriously mentally ill. Advocates for the mentally ill warn that the governor's proposal would further strain an already under-funded mental health system.

Emily Jenkins of the Arizona Council of Human Service Providers says the initiatives would drain scarce resources from the existing system.

"We will begin to see people with serious mental illness ending up without housing, without crisis services, without access to services."

State lawmakers have been engaged in a decades-long court battle over mental health funding, which Jenkins says has always been inadequate. Budget cuts the past two years have created a crisis situation, she adds, with Arizona's mental health providers losing $17 million last year. Jenkins supports integrating physical and mental health services, but not by fragmenting limited resources.

Under the proposal, Jenkins says, mental health providers will be required to continue providing expensive services, but without the funding they need - threatening their financial stability and possibly forcing them to shut down.

"If that happens, we will see people living on the streets in dire conditions who desperately need services. The only places they're going to be able to go for any kind of shelter and assistance will be emergency rooms and jails."

If mentally ill people are forced to rely on emergency rooms, Jenkins warns, it will create a bad situation for them and the communities they live in.

"If you are a parent and your child has swine flu, you could well find yourself waiting for a number of hours while the emergency room people struggle to find some sort of placement or resource for people who have serious mental illness."

Jenkins urges the governor and lawmakers to face up to the problem of inadequate mental health funding and come up with alternative strategies.

Doug Ramsey, Public News Service - AZ