EXCLUSIVE: State aims to restore mental health cuts

EXCLUSIVE: State aims to restore mental health cuts
Published: Sep. 20, 2012 at 8:38 PM HST|Updated: Sep. 20, 2012 at 9:59 PM HST
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When the state slashed its funding for mental health services several years ago, Hale Na'au Pono says it was forced to lay off 80 of its 150 employees.

The mental health service provider went from being one of the largest employers on the Waianae Coast to just barely hanging on.

"There was a drastic impact on our total employment," said Poka Laenui, Hale Na'au Pono's executive director.

"In terms of our services, we went from 400 seriously mentally ill adults being case managed ... that dropped to 20 or 30."

Hawaii News Now has learned that the state Health Department and a special task force set up by Gov. Neil Abercrombie wants to restore many of the cuts like those faced by providers like Hale Na'au Pono.

They're also looking to re-activate many of the 319 mental health and other state Health Department positions lost during the Lingle-era downsizings.

Health Director Loretta Fuddy made that disclosure during recent settlement talks over a lawsuit filed by three former mental health administrators who lost their jobs during the downsizings, said their attorney Eric Seitz.

"We were given assurances that the Department of Health ... has convened an interdepartmental task force comprise of department heads and several other people to look at restoring some of the 350-some odd jobs cut and many of the critical programs," said Seitz.

The mental health arena was one of the hardest hit by the budget cuts initiative back in 2009 by then-Gov. Linda Lingle.

The Heath Department lost a total of 319 positions and was forced to cut funding to dozens of nonprofit services providers.

These nonprofits handled much of the case-management duties for Hawaii's severely mentally ill: They provided psychiatric services, helped dispense medication for patients, staffed suicide hotlines and intervened in cases involving crimes by the mentally ill.

The Health Department says it's too early to say which programs will be reinstated or how many people will be rehired.

"As we work with the governor to rebuild public health services, the DOH will request additional funding to restore positions in most critical areas as resources and the economy permit," Fuddy said in an email to Hawaii News Now.

Mental health advocates say they're encouraged that Abercrombie administration is changing course. They say the Lingle-era cuts have taken a huge toll on the local community.

Marya Grambs, executive director of Mental Health America of Hawaii, the cuts made it so that only the most seriously mentally ill  could qualify for help.

The amount of counseling time for these people was also cut by about two-thirds to about three hours a month while services such as suicide hotlines saw their funding drastically reduced.

"The phone just rang and rang and rang," said Grambs said.

"That means people in crisis were not able to get immediate help. That can have huge ramifications."

The jobs and programs won't be restored overnight. The DOH still needs approval from the governor's office and the state Legislature.

In the meantime, many of hard-hit mental health providers are praying that financial relief will be finally on the way.