CARSON CITY — Lawmakers Thursday challenged cuts in the state’s mental health services and said they will not agree to reductions that would jeopardize the health and safety of Nevada communities.
Gov. Jim Gibbons has proposed closing 11 of the state’s 21 rural mental health clinics and increasing the number of patients per staff member at mental health facilities in Reno and Las Vegas.
While overall human services spending, about a third of the state’s general funds, for the coming two fiscal years is up, funding for mental health services would decrease 5 percent, to $473 million.
"Several of us took vows that we would never support reductions again," said Sen. Bob Coffin, D-Las Vegas, referring to budget cuts to mental health in 1991. "Now we face the greatest reduction I’ve ever seen."
"The mentally ill cannot complain. Their families are shy about complaining," Coffin said at a joint Senate-Assembly budget subcommittee hearing. "Who is going to fight for the mentally ill?"
Of the 21 rural mental health clinics, two already are closed, another nine would be closed by June 30, and services would be moved to regional hubs.
Harold Cook, chief of the state Mental Health and Developmental Services Division, said nearly 500 clients would be affected by the closures but would be provided rides to clinics that remain open or would be seen by staff members traveling to outlying areas.
"The suicide rates are very high in our rural areas," said Assemblywoman Debbie Smith, D-Sparks. "And it’s a very isolated feeling when you are hundreds of miles from help."
Assemblywoman Heidi Gansert, R-Reno, said that almost the entire population of clients is more than 25 miles away from the regional hubs.
"I’m not sure how this fiscally makes sense," Gansert said. "I question whether we would really save money by closing these because we’re going to have to travel to reach these individuals."
Cook said the travel costs were factored into the budget.
Assemblyman John Carpenter, R-Elko, testified that the closures would affect outlying towns where the need for such services is growing. He said that staff members would waste a lot of time traveling to see clients and that people in need of counseling already are winding up in jails.
"Would you be able to help us with a tax increase?" Coffin asked him after his testimony.
"I recognize the need, and where there is a need, we have to come to the table with solutions," Carpenter replied.
Legislators discussed cuts to the Supportive Living Arrangements program, which helps people living in their homes and helps keep them out of hospitals.
"We know the homeless population is growing," Cook said. "Housing is probably one of the most critical things we can do to improve people’s lives. This is probably one of the most difficult cuts that we have to make."