In this file photo, Alex Price from Cape Counseling Services, second from left, explains the survey for getting information about the homeless during a statewide point-in-time count, Jan. 25, 2017. Volunteers included, from left, Cape Hope director Denise Venurini, Price, Cape Hope board member Kit Marlowe and his wife B.J., and Barbara Allison, a Cape Hope board member and Branches volunteer. 

Christopher South

CAPE MAY COURT HOUSE – A crisis is looming across the state if a new funding formula for community-based mental health providers is adopted under the governor’s proposed 2018 budget, a county mental health official said.

Mental illness is a factor in the lives of one in four adults and one in 10 children, said Greg Speed, CEO of Cape Counseling Services in Cape May Court House. In Cape May County, the proposed budget cuts would leave more than 1,500 mentally ill people without treatment, he said.

It’s a serious issue, said Middle Township Police Chief Christopher Leusner, coming at a time when the state needs more mental health services, not less.

“I think it’s reasonable to assume, that if the numbers are correct, that if people are not getting the mental health services they need, it’s just a matter of time until they come into contact with the criminal justice system,” Leusner said.

“When they cut costs in the budget, they’re just shifting costs to the criminal justice system.”

“This will have a significant impact on our county,” Speed said.

Community-based mental health providers will lose significant state funding under Gov. Chris Christie’s proposed 2018 fiscal budget, set to go into effect July 1, Speed said. Those cuts amount to as much as 40 percent of the budgets of community mental health providers across the state.

In Cape May County, Cape Counseling currently provides care to about 5,500 people. The state’s 2018 budget would mean slashing that number by a third – to just about 3,900. That’s a significant drop that would leave people with mental health issues without treatment, Speed said.

“Within our outpatient program, it’s a $1.5 million deficit,” he said.

For decades, community mental health centers have received reimbursement funding to provide mental healthcare services for the uninsured and underinsured. Under the 2018 budget, community mental health providers' reimbursement would be shifted to a fee-for-service system.

But the fee-for-service system is based on inadequate reimbursement rates and a lack of funding for many essential expenses, Speed said. Services such as nursing, transportation, building maintenance, operations, and security would not be included as billable services.

Those are big cuts for Cape Counseling and other providers, that could mean drastic cuts to services and treatment, and threaten a provider’s capability to function, he said.

Cape Counseling would reduce its outpatient care department by about a third, meaning at least 1,650 mentally ill individuals in Cape May County would be left without treatment for what could be severe mental illnesses, Speed said.

The services Cape Counseling would cut include outpatient therapy, psychiatric evaluations, medication maintenance, adult residential services, supportive housing services, security and clerical and administrative support.

Earlier this month, 22 municipal police officers and mental health professional worked together to help police better understand how to recognize people that may have a mental health issue as part of “crisis intervention team training.”

Too often police officers come into contact with people with mental health problems, and sometimes it’s not recognized as a mental health issue but seen as a criminal act, said Cape May County Prosecutor Bob Taylor.

Recognizing a mental health issue isn’t always easy, Taylor said, and it’s why the training will continue in the coming years until every officer in Cape May County is certified.

Speed said that the potential budget cuts would put more people on the streets with mental issues.

Often, the mentally ill are kept out of jails or hospitals solely because they are participating in a mental health treatment plan administered by a community mental health provider, Speed said in a statement.

He predicted that the state's shift in funding would lead to an increase in inpatient mental health admissions in hospitals, homelessness, and incarceration rates, all results that are far more expensive to address.

“Without these services provided by community mental health agencies, we can undoubtedly expect an increase in violence, homelessness, police and EMS calls, incarcerations, emergency room usage, school and job absenteeism, and other social problems,” Speed said.

“That would have a negative impact on law enforcement,” Taylor said.

Leusner agreed.

“Before this cut, we saw a need in training for our police to deal with people with mental health issues,” Leusner said. Recognizing that people are struggling with mental health issues is an unfortunate, yet critical facet to police work.

“More and more, the police department is becoming the social service agency of last resort,” Leusner said.

Middle Township Gazette reporter. Call me anytime you have news for the paper or the website. 609-365-6176