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Department of Mental Health budget puts state families at risk

Duncan Banner - 12/15/2017

Dec. 13--Oklahoma Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services Commissioner Terri White is hoping for a "Christmas miracle."

White, who was joined by Rep. Marcus McEntire, delivered a message Tuesday to the Mental Health Task Force of Pathways to a Healthy Stephens County, where she discussed budget holes and hopes for the next special session.

She said coming to the county was one of the highlights of her trips around the state.

"So few counties have come together the way you all have to really talk about mental health and addiction issues in your county," she said. "The fact that you have a 'Stephens County Mental Health Task Force' is huge, and I actually credit you for Rep. Marcus McEntire, who is fighting for health and substance abuse services. I believe it is because you all are talking with him."

White said Duncan Regional Hospital has been a great partner to the mental health agency.

As Stephens County is so involved, White said she had to change the message for Stephens County from "talk to your representatives, your senators" to "talk to your friends who live in other districts and have them call their representatives and senators."

The budget problems began last legislative session with the creation of a cigarette tax bill which would have provided additional money on top of general appropriations to DHS, the Department of Mental Heath and the Healthcare Authority.

Later, the bill became the cigarette fee bill and instead of creating additional funding, it gave those agencies the same funding while taking away their general appropriations. So when the cigarette fee bill was ruled unconstitutional by the state supreme court it created a large funding gap.

"When the Supreme court ruled the way the bill had been passed was unconstitutional we lost $75 million of our budget," White said. "That we 23 percent of our budget for our agency. Unfortunately we have the largest dollar amount at 75 million ... but we have the smallest budget of those three agencies so it was a much bigger hit to us percentage-wise."

White said it was difficult to show what 23 percent of the agency's budget really looks like because she herself could hardly imagine it.

"How do you hurt the least number of families or people who need help and pull this money out," White said. "We have the smallest administration budget ... it's about 2-and-a-half percent. What that means is 97 percent of my dollars go out to local communities for services."

White said because the fee was overruled in September that leaves only six months to cut 23 percent which really becomes 46 percent because half the year is gone.

"As a department, primarily we do treatment and prevention and comparatively we do treatment," she said. "We have so few dollars appropriated for prevention which is a shame ... most of that is federal dollars so the vast majority of what we do is treatment."

White said for a good amount of time it looked like the agency was going to have to get rid of all outpatient services until the end of the special session. The legislature passed a general appropriations bill which Gov. Mary Fallin vetoed except for allowing emergency money to fund those three core agencies.

There is a another special session starting Dec. 18 and White is hoping it will result in a budget with no cuts.

"The best thing that could happened to us in the special session is we get to zero, or in a dream world, we actually get some money," she said. "At this point our best shot is 0 [percent cuts]. I don't know if that will happen ... people will not reach an agreement to solve this problem. Everyone wants it solved but no one is truly willing to compromise."

White said she is hoping for a "Christmas miracle," which still leaves two out of three Oklahomans rejected for services.

Linda.Provost@DuncanBanner.com

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(c)2017 The Duncan Banner (Duncan, Okla.)

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