As the debate over how to shore up Oklahoma’s budget shortfall continues at the state Capitol, mental health providers and the people who use their services are getting anxious.
“Nobody understands — you can’t see a mental injury,” Fred Lollis said. “When you have a mental breakdown, you want that stability back.”
Lollis and his wife, Rose, have been homeless since August 2015 and use a network of services in Tulsa that provides them counseling, medication and a place to escape the cold.
On Thursday, the couple sat on a leather couch on the second floor of the Denver House, a drop-in service near downtown Tulsa that connects people to social services and gives them a warm place to relax.
“Before here, we just had this feeling of despair that, ‘I’m going to do drugs until it kills me,’ Fred Lollis said. “I felt like a failure for my wife, and I didn’t want her to do this, to be in this.”
Fred and Rose Lollis have been going to the Denver House since May, where they were able to order their birth certificates and get connected with Family & Children’s Services for mental health care. Through the house, the couple is getting permanent housing in a couple of weeks.
Programs like the Denver House and an identical program — the Lottie House in Oklahoma City — would lose funding if proposed budget cuts from the Oklahoma Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services go through.
The agency announced last week it would start initiating a 23 percent cut to its budget starting Nov. 1 if the Legislature doesn’t appropriate additional funds by then. Cuts would include the elimination of all state-funded outpatient services. Drug courts, mental health courts and other alternative court treatment programs would no longer be funded.
State lawmakers created a new budget plan Thursday that calls for a 4 percent gross production tax rate — up from 2 percent — on new oil and gas production.
House and Senate committees are expected to consider the new budget package Friday afternoon, and final votes could happen Saturday.
Meanwhile, mental health advocates and providers are feeling tense as the cuts loom.
Jill Young, program chief for outpatient services for Family & Children’s Services, said it’s unlikely legislatures understand the impact cuts to mental health would have across the state.
“When I’m talking to legislators, sometimes it seems like they don’t feel like it will be in their backyard,” Young said. “If 911 is responding to mental health 911 calls, they won’t be there for your car crash, won’t be there for your medical emergency, won’t be there for your house fire.
“I am begging them. They need to compromise.”
Bethany Svetlic, assistant director of recovery services for Mental Health Association Oklahoma, has worked in mental health services for 15 years. She said she’s never seen cuts this severe.
“We’ve seen cuts, like I said, year after year, but never at this level,” Svetlic said. “It’s so drastic that I really don’t think people are wrapping their heads around how much that’s going to impact your neighbor, your grandchildren, your grandmother.
“I just don’t think people are really understanding the scope of and the depth theses cuts are going to impact us.”
Mental Health Association Oklahoma operates the Denver and Lottie houses and gets funding for the drop-in centers from ODMHSAS.
The organization receives about $450,000 per year to operate the houses, said Greg Shinn, associate director of Mental Health Association Oklahoma.
“Those programs serve thousands of people a year,” Shinn said. “many of whom are homeless. Many of whom are disabled. Many have substance use disorders.”
The Lottie and Denver houses are hubs for their cities, connecting people to social services. Thousands of people use the centers each year, Shinn said.
“It’s an enormous amount of people we serve,” he said.
Mental Health Association Oklahoma receives funding from ODMHSAS for two supportive housing programs in Tulsa — the WD Packard Permanent Supportive Housing and the 12th Street Safe Haven programs. The funding for the housing comes from federal dollars received by ODMHSAS, which means these programs are likely less at risk, Shinn said.
“I can’t even imagine going back to before when we didn’t have those (programs),” Shinn said. “It would be a gigantic step backward.”
Family & Children’s Services, the state’s largest outpatient community, serves 18,000 adults and more than 4,200 children, Young said.
The organization operates the alternative treatment court program in partnership with Tulsa County and the Community Service Council.
There’s about 6,400 people in Oklahoma who participate in alternative courts, Young said. If funding is cut for alternative court programs, those participating will have few options left.
“Those 6,400 people who get kicked out of alternative courts, their only option is prison or jail,” she said.
Alternative programs also save money. Treating someone costs about $5,000 per year, while incarceration costs about $19,200, Young said.
Family & Children’s Services operates two assertive community treatment (PACT) teams in Tulsa.
“Those teams are hospitals without walls,” Young said.
The teams provide intensive mental health services along with outpatient care to high-risk adults experiencing homelessness, mental illness or addiction.
“The whole intention is to provide services for seriously mentally ill individuals who can’t stay out of the hospital or jail,” Young said.
The PACT teams serve about 200 people. Before those people started receiving team services, collectively they spent 2,223 days in either a hospital or jail over the course of a year, Young said. A year after PACT involvement in 2016, that went down to 423 days.
The PACT program is considered an outpatient service and would be eliminated with budget cuts. Family & Children’s Services has a homeless outreach team and services embedded in Tulsa’s jail that would also be affected.
“I just don’t think the general public understands (the impact of cuts) and rightfully so,” Young said. “They don’t see what’s going on behind the scenes every day and what we prevent.”
The organization’s Community Outreach Psychiatric Emergency Services (COPES) is a mobile team that responds to mental health crises for people of all ages. The team can either stabilize someone over the phone or can bring a team of providers to his or her location, said Krista Lewis, chief program officer for medical and crisis services for Family & Children’s Services.
“It’s one of the departments at risk for losing all of its funding,” Lewis said. “Should the Legislature not come up with a resolution and our services begin to be impacted by budget cuts, it’s a team that will cease to exist in community.”
In fiscal year 2017, COPES responded to between 1,300 to 1,500 calls per week, Lewis said. The team had more than 8,800 encounters with about 5,600 people, she said.
Lewis said losing COPES would be “catastrophic.”
“Without COPES, people could die,” Lewis said. “People could try to take their lives and be successful. … Emergency rooms will be overrun with people. People will go there where ever they can.
“I just can’t even imagine. It’s hard to even wrap your mind around.”