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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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News >  Spokane

Mental health staff reduced

Spokane Mental Health announced it will lay off one-fifth of its work force this month, the most dramatic of several staff reductions at social service agencies in the city.

The nonprofit is informing 65 workers that their jobs will end Sept. 30, as the agency attempts to realign its budget after losing $3.4 million in funding. Spokane County officials say the cuts are necessary because its public mental health system faces a $7.5 budget shortfall that stems from changes in Medicaid – the state-federal program that provides health care for impoverished Americans.CEO David Panken said the cuts “will likely have serious consequences for one of our community’s most vulnerable populations.”

“We will do everything we can to be available for those who need our care, but with the significance of these cuts, it simply won’t be the same as in the past,” Panken said.

The cuts in Spokane County’s funding of public mental health programs have sent tremors through the social service community, and agencies have begun to shed workers. The county plans to reduce funding for services for people with mental illnesses by $450,000 a month.

This year, the Washington Legislature allocated $80 million to support programs previously funded by the federal government, but Spokane County officials said it is not enough to offset the lost funding. The state’s Department of Social and Health Services has blamed county officials for some of the financial woes, saying they exhausted their savings and that cuts to programs would have been necessary in Spokane County even if federal funding had not decreased this year.

Lutheran Community Services Northwest, which provides counseling to women from violent relationships and children who are the victims of sexual abuse, lost $80,000 a month – about 40 percent of its county funding. The agency has notified 15 therapists and eight support staff that their positions will end in a month, according to Dennis McGaughy, the agency’s regional vice-president.

McGaughy, whose agency receives 600 calls requesting help each month, said the cuts are “just huge.”

Catholic Charities stated that its lost funding – about $12,000 a month – equates to about two-and-a-half full-time counselors.

But Director Rob McCann said he is more worried that cuts to other agencies will send a wave of new clients to Catholic Charities’ homeless shelters.

“We expect that our shelters will see a huge influx,” McCann said. “If you are living on the bubble and the bubble bursts, then you’re on the street.”

Elder Services, which lost $46,000 a month, plans to scale back services to hundreds of elderly residents, and to end both its 24-hour emergency response system and a volunteer transportation program that shuttled sick residents to doctors’ appointments.

Spokane Mental Health, the largest of the county’s mental health contractors, lost $2.7 million a year in direct funding from the county, as well as about $700,000, primarily from Spokane Public Schools, for therapeutic schools for students.

The agency operated two alternative high schools in conjunction with the city’s school district. One of those will close, and the second school will operate with a reduced mental health staff, according to Spokane Mental Health officials.

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