State proposal would put mentally ill on the street

January 25, 2011 6:09:37 PM PST
Massive cuts could be coming to mental health programs in Texas, and experts suggest will cost care but ironically could cost you money.

We've heard a lot about these proposed budget cuts. Few are as deep as the cuts to community mental health care.

Right now, 9,000 adults are getting outpatient mental health care in Harris County alone. Treatments range from major depression to bipolar disorder and schizophrenia.

The proposed cuts would force 1,500 to 1,800 of them from the clinics, but they wouldn't go away -- they'd likely end up in places where doctors tell us you'll pay more for them.

If you met John Cox today, you'd likely have no idea he's been in state-funded mental health treatment for 16 years.

"Nobody wants to be mentally ill," Cox said.

The 65-year-old Houstonian suffers from major depression and once had addiction issues and for a brief time years ago was homeless.

"I kinda fell through the cracks. I had to sleep in the car, I had to sleep in the waiting room at Ben Taub," he said.

But now, he's studying for a master's degree, volunteers to help other patients, is starting a new job and still getting treatment.

He's one of 9,000 Harris County adults who depend on the Mental Health and Mental Retardation Authority for help, but last week, the state house is proposing 20 percent cuts to the program.

"We would have to stop serving 1,500 to 1,800 adults," MHMRA Director Dr. Steven Schnee said.

They're patients who Schnee says have nowhere else to go for help.

Doctors suspect untreated mental health patients would eventually end up in crisis and in front of you at the Ben Taub emergency room, where Dr. Mark Escott says they already see 2,000 mental health patients every month. "You might wait longer for whatever your complaint is -- everything from sore throats to chest pain," Dr. Escott said.

And if they're not waiting in the ER then they're likely waiting at the Harris County Jail's mental health unit.

"I think it's just frightening to those of us who have to provide service. We don't have a choice not to provide service," said Dr. Michael Seale with the Harris County Sheriff's Office Healthcare Services.

Dr. Seale says mental health patients are frequently arrested for little more than trespassing or assault or breaking and entering. The Harris County Jails treats 2,400 inmates every day, making it the largest mental health facility in Texas.

The care there is paid for by county taxpayers without any state or federal help, and budget cuts to the state program would likely increase the need for services inside the jail, where it's more expensive -- and according to doctors -- less effective.

"We're criminalizing mental health in this state. It is tragic," Schnee said.

It's tragic to him, and a questioned cost savings to you and troubling to patients like Cox who got help last year, but may find it hard to get the same help next year.

"It's not easy. As you know there is a waiting list. I was just fortunate," Cox said.

MHMRA already turns 1,000 people away a month, has 2,000 people on its waiting list and wouldn't have any room for new patients at all.

The cuts will be debated in Austin next month.