Mental health and substance abuse providers across Florida are scrambling to keep core services after the Legislature and a state agency quietly allowed $20.4 million in federal money to expire without replacing it.
Now, in the midst of an opioid crisis, Naples could lose substance abuse services for 219 people; the Treasure Coast might have to axe a full-time licensed therapist who would have served 50 people; and Jacksonville will likely close a juvenile addiction facility along with slashing a Methadone clinic's beds by nearly half. Those are just three examples of proposed cuts to essential substance abuse programs throughout the state.
The cuts come in a year of budget surpluses and even as the state’s overall funding for mental health and substance abuse went up by $16.9 million for the budget year that began July 1.
Gov. Rick Scott in May declared a public health emergency that allowed the state to get $27 million in federal funding to treat the opioid crisis. But that money can’t be used to replace basic services such as beds for crisis units, or detox or residential drug treatment programs.
For Blake Becker, who underwent drug treatment at the David Lawrence Center in East Naples, the program now at risk helped turn his life around.
In addition, Becker, a 35-year-old with a long rap sheet, said the drug program saves taxpayers money when compared to jail.
“It was like criminal college,” Becker said of the times he was incarcerated.
Becker served 168 days in Collier County's jail, costing taxpayers $23,520, according to estimates by the Sheriff's Office. But for $22,000, Becker was treated and hasn’t re-offended since.
“When they said that they could help me live a new life, I said ‘I’m all for it,’ " Becker said. "I just followed the directions from that point forward.”
Becker is now a small-business owner in Naples.
Managing organizations that oversee public funding given to community health providers said they had no idea during the last lawmaking session that $20.4 million in federal dollars administered through the state’s Department of Children and Families were used up.
“It wasn’t clear to us that this money was going away. I don’t know why no one brought it to our attention," said Linda McKinnon, CEO at Central Florida Behavioral Health Network.
"I don’t believe there was any malicious intent on anybody’s part,” McKinnon said. “If we had recognized this, then we would have been advocating for these funds all along.”
Senate health budget chair Anitere Flores, R-Miami, said she also didn’t know the funding was going away and should have been informed.
House health budget chair Jason Brodeur said he did know about the reduction in funding but said he didn’t work to replace it because the state got more money in mental health and substance abuse overall and the House already was negotiating Senate priorities.
“The reality is the Legislature probably would not have been able to provide $20 million in general revenue to supplant the non-recurring federal funds anyway,” said Brodeur, R-Sanford.
Kathleen Peters, a House Republican representing Pinellas County, said she was blindsided by the exhausted funding and that she was never informed about it by Brodeur or other House leaders, even though she was working to deal with the opiate crisis.
In Pinellas, a facility called Operation PAR will likely shut down 10 beds for 40 pregnant women addicted to opiates.
Those 10 beds will burden Florida taxpayers with an enormous long-term cost, Peters said.
“At minimum, 40 babies will be addicted to opiates,” said Peters, R-Treasure Island. “We know that it costs at minimum $280,000 per baby for the first two months of their lives to be treated for opiate addiction. And that’s just the first two months.”
As providers try to deal with the reduced money, programs like the one at David Lawrence Center — that Becker said saved him — are now at risk.
David Lawrence Center CEO Scott Burgess said he was surprised to learn the center would receive nearly $300,000 less from the state this year. The center isn't planning to cut the drug treatment program but could be forced to pay for it by cutting other services, or through additional fundraising and grant writing. And in a world where mental health still has a stigma attached to it, Burgess said, raising that money is more difficult than it sounds.
“This will impact lives. There's no question about it,” Burgess said. “When you're so thin to begin with, you're really starting to cut into the bone.”
For more, visit Naples Daily News.