OP-ED: Illinois Budget Impasse Impact: A Behavioral Healthcare Autopsy Report

OP-ED: Unlike the warnings two years ago directed at Illinois lawmakers about human services program closures and employee layoffs at the beginning of the Illinois budget impasse, now the warnings have ended.

They have been replaced by autopsy reports.

Since the budget stalemate began, more than 1 million Illinois residents have lost access to critical human services. 1 million.

More specifically, regarding behavioral healthcare, 80,000 people in Illinois have lost access to needed mental health services and more than 24,000 fewer residents have been admitted to addiction treatment services.

In the past, governors from the executive branch and lawmakers from previous General Assemblies had determined critical human services were best delivered at the local level by the private sector as Illinois moved away from expensive state-operated institutional models to community level care.  As those decisions were made, policy makers turned to our community providers and other human service provider organizations to carry out the policy of providing government services more effectively and efficiently. And the private sector delivered.

Yet, the executive branch and the legislative branch have walked away from community care providers who delivered their goals, evidenced by year-after-year of budget cuts and financial starvation of crucial behavioral health programs.

Currently, lawmakers and the governor are making impossible, no, absurd, demands: accept months or sometimes years-long wait for payments of services delivered. The wait has financially brutalized our agencies. We’ve exhausted our reserves. We’ve sapped our lines of credit.  We’ve drained our staff. Our employees, who are on the front line of providing care to those with substance abuse and mental health disorders, arrive at work each week wondering: is this the last day?

Have you the merest notion of how such uncertainty disables a workforce?

To heave insult on top of injury, providers and their staff often hear some lawmakers and policy makers in the executive branch refer to human services as a “drain” on the General Revenue Fund. A drain?

Well, let’s be clear: when your local human service agency lays of staff – staff who pay taxes, buy homes, cars, furniture, groceries, sodas, sandwiches, etc. from your districts’ local businesses – those businesses, local chambers of commerce, and lawmakers’ districts suffer.

As of last March 2016, more than 1,000 mental health and substance abuse clinicians alone had lost their jobs. That doesn’t include case workers or administrative staff. The number of job losses has only grown in the last 12 months as the impasse has grinded forward.

The budget crisis is both a human service crisis that strikes at vulnerable citizens of Illinois and it’s an economic crisis that undermines local business owners and lawmakers’ constituents and communities and local economies.

The budget standoff and its impact are ravaging communities across the state from those who receive care, their families, the agencies that provide the care, to the local businesses that earn their income from serving them.

Without the adoption of a FY 2018 budget, the autopsy report that community behavioral healthcare providers deliver next year will only be more gruesome.

Jessica Hayes, Vice President, Board of Directors, Illinois Association for Behavioral Healthcare