State House Representative Pat Ownbey (R-Ardmore) had a short answer when asked whether cuts of up to $75 million to state mental health services is a real possibility.
“It’s not,” Ownbey said. “I fully expect the legislature to handle this when we reconvene.”
Special session continues among state lawmakers since it started Sept. 25, where representatives on both sides of the aisle have mulled over how to solve a $215 million budget shortfall caused by a $1.50 per pack cigarette tax generator that was deemed unconstitutional. The flip side of the coin is preventing further cuts to state agencies.
Yet the threat of reduced funding for state agencies has again reared its head.
Outpatient mental health and substance abuse programs for 189,000 Oklahoma residents, including some addicted to opioids, will be eliminated or slashed on Nov. 1 because of state budget cuts, Oklahoma Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services Director Terri White said Oct. 18 at a news conference in front of the agency’s Crisis Center in Oklahoma City.
Ownbey said the state’s mental health department was obligated to inform the public of such cuts due to its inability to wait on state legislature for a solution.
“They’ve got to give notice to certain programs with the understanding that more than likely they will see cuts,” Ownbey said. “But we’re really looking at targeted cuts to agencies that we feel like could handle those cuts better than others.”
Even though Ownbey suggested that lawmakers are sizing up incremental cuts (one to two percent) to a collection of state agencies, they’re working to find revenue sources before resorting to cutting corners.
Ownbey also said carryover funds up to $85 million and various rainy day funds could help reduce cuts if lawmakers choose to use them.
“We’re going to handle this very meticulously, with the least amount of pain without cutting services,” Ownbey said. “When we’re looking at these things, we may try administrative cuts rather than service cuts.”
Still, several agencies statewide have expressed concern about the mere suggestion of cuts to mental health services.
The National Alliance on Mental Illness in Oklahoma intends to convene in a rally at 10 a.m. Tuesday at the State Capitol, demanding legislators take budget cuts off the table.
“Our state is facing catastrophic budget cuts that will devastate mental health and addiction services,” NAMI said in a press release for the rally. “We will see disastrous loss of necessary services for so many in need.”
Nonprofits that benefit individuals facing mental health concerns, which are less dependent on state funds, anticipate a rise in a demand for services in a market with an overflowing waitlist.
Lindsey Humphrey, an outreach worker for Oxford House in Ardmore, aids individuals seeking treatment for addiction to alcohol and other substances, and said bleed-over between state agencies and nonprofits is already common.
“We’ll definitely see an influx of people seeking treatment because they won’t be able to afford certain types of medication,” Humphrey said. “A lot of this will come down to us.”
She said several representatives for Oxford House will rally at the State Capitol Tuesday, as well as several with fellow state nonprofits.
Humphrey said the correlations between substance abuse and mental health are noticeable, adding “this is definitely a big deal.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.