By Joey McWilliams
In recent years, citizens in Oklahoma have frequently awakened to the news of state budget cuts in various areas.
Financial issues involving education seem to be the issue as often as any topic. But in the last two weeks, other areas have come to the forefront.
The state has announced that budget reductions in the amount of $215 million will begin for the Oklahoma Heath Care Authority, the Department of Human Services and the Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services (ODMHSAS).
The ODMHSAS announced plans in a release on Wednesday to eliminate all state-financed outpatient services statewide in response to the $75 million reduction to its budget. Additionally, the agency said it has no choice but to initiate these cuts in November and fully implement them in December and January.
If initiated, these cuts will impact nearly 189,000 Oklahomans currently receiving outpatient services, 700 treatment agencies in communities statewide and more than 8,500 therapists, case managers, doctors and nurses and hundreds of support staff, according to the release.
This would have a major effect on Bryan County, according to Hunter Rambo, the Director of Substance Abuse Services for the Center for Psychological Development in Durant.
Rambo, a licensed professional counselor and a national certified counselor, said this would mean shutting down drug court and all outpatient services because that would be the first thing that would have to be cut.
“There will be no outpatient counseling agencies open that provide services for their clients who bill Medicaid,” Rambo said. “Our agency would not be able to survive.”
Rambo listed agencies in Bryan County such as the Center for Psychological Development, as well as Mental Health Services – Southern Oklahoma (MHSSO), Southeastern Oklahoma Family Services, River Bend Counseling Services, and others.
Rambo also said that without these services, there would be an increase in jail occupancy and prison sentences.
“You know, a lot of people who get to avoid jail – non-violent offenders who struggle with substance abuse and mental health issues – they’re going to be forced to be put in jail or prison,” Rambo said. “And what’s going to happen when the jails or prisons become overcrowded and they’re not able to house them?
“I feel like our emergency rooms are going to be flooded when all of our clients are in crisis because they’re not going to have anywhere else to go. It’s just going to be a mess.”
ODMHSAS Commissioner Terri White said at the time of the release the hope is that a solution is found in time to keep these cuts from happening.
“At the same time, as of now, we must move forward with plans and to allow those plans to move forward without notifying all impacted would be unfair and irresponsible,” White said.
“These cuts are unbearable and will decimate our state’s behavioral health care system. Yet, they are the only choices the agency has left to keep from completely eliminating services for Oklahoma’s most acutely ill.”
A temporary solution is in the works as Oklahoma Speaker of the House, Charles McCall (R-Atoka), has called members of the House back to the Capitol on Monday to vote on a short-term plan to keep these agencies from having to make these immediate stoppages.
Oklahoma legislators tried to fill the gap in the budget of nearly $900 million earlier this year by passing a $1.50 tax per pack of cigarettes. However, on Aug. 10, the Oklahoma Supreme Court rejected the tax, stating the fee violates a state constitutional ban on passing revenue-raising measures in the final five days of a legislative session and without a 75 percent majority vote.
The bill had been passed on the final day of the session.