In January, President Obama challenged Republican lawmakers to “put your money where your mouth is” on the importance of mental health spending and reforms. We hope this might serve as a friendly reminder to Gov. Dannel P. Malloy to reconsider the layoffs he’s announced for mental health workers like us at already short-staffed facilities that provide essential care to patients whose illnesses unfortunately make them a danger to themselves and others.
A report by the National Alliance on Mental Illness released in December 2012, three years after Sandy Hook, cited the considerable gap between “the great deal of rhetoric in recent years about the broken mental health system in America and the need to invest in services that work in helping people living with mental illness to recover and reach their full potential.”
As state workers whose agency provides care for individuals with acute mental health issues, we know first-hand what happens when the work force is cut: helpless people who depend upon state protection get lost in the shuffle. Often that leads to an increase in suicide, crime, homelessness, and increased medical complications — all painful and costly consequences that negatively impact our communities.
Layoffs of health care providers add expenses to state government, rather than savings. According to Kevin Lembo, Connecticut’s State Comptroller, each layoff will result in another 1.5 persons losing their jobs based on decreased economic activity. Layoffs also result in decreased collection of state taxes and an increase in state unemployment insurance costs. Most critically, layoffs of professional mental health care providers risk disruption in the quality of client care and make it more difficult for the remaining employees to meet clients’ needs.
Middle-class Connecticut families who pay taxes and expect the state to help them with these sorts of problems are the losers. The dismissal letters we and our colleagues received two weeks ago did not speak to these kinds of realities. It simply said, “Due to severe fiscal circumstances, budget cuts have become necessary.” We are among the nearly 700 state workers who have lost their jobs because Governor Malloy won’t dare to ask wealthy people and large companies to pay a fairer share in state taxes.
Why is the governor unwilling to raise taxes for the wealthy and biggest employers? Companies like Wal-Mart and Dunkin Donuts pay their employees so poorly that many of them rely on state services, paid for by state taxpayers. If we required that these big employers pay a fee to compensate for what the state pays out each year to low-wage workers forced to access public assistance, we could go a long way toward reducing current and future deficits. That’s just one possibility among many fair options.
It is a fact that Connecticut, while the richest state in the country, is still slowly recovering from the recession, and so the deficit is real. But even with the small tax hike that Malloy signed in 2011, our tax rates for our wealthiest citizens are pathetically low compared to our neighbors: 6.9 percent compared to about 9 percent in New Jersey and New York and 12.6 percent between city and state levies for wealthy New York City residents who earn $1 million or more.
All we know is that instead of doing the right thing, Connecticut is harming people in need of mental health and addiction services.
People who come to us often are traumatized, even suicidal, after domestic violence, rape, homelessness or accidental drug overdoses. We treat veterans with PTSD when the VA cannot find them a provider. We treat the disenfranchised who do not have the resources to receive care at privately funded commercial providers. We treat them on arrival and we maintain that health care relationship. This is a lot cheaper than treatment in a hospital emergency room. We work to help people get control of their symptoms. We train patients to find housing, develop social and occupational skills to improve their independence and when possible to re-enter the workforce and become productive members of their communities.
It takes a while to build trust and a respectful relationships with our patients and clients. People with severe mental illnesses need continuity in their care and deserve to be treated with dignity and effectiveness. Even in the best of times, these jobs are very challenging. Some of the people we support have disabilities that will never will allow them to lead “normal” lives but we do the best we can to assist them to lead lives of fulfillment, and therefore minimize risks to themselves and to their community.
With these layoffs and budget cuts, the governor is failing Connecticut’s most vulnerable citizens and their families.
Jacqueline Brunelle of Council 4 AFSCME was a vocational rehabilitation counselor at Southeastern Mental Health Authority and Immacula Cann of SEIU District 1199 was a nurse educator at Southwest Connecticut Mental Health and Addiction System. Both recently lost their jobs because of the budget cuts. Council 4 can be reached on Facebook and through its Campaign4MiddleClass on Twitter @C4MC. Sign up for email updates from Council 4 here.
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