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Colorado, like other states, trims health programs amid health crisis

Markian Hawryluk, Kaiser Health News on

Published in Health & Fitness

As a teenager, Paulina Castle struggled for years with suicidal thoughts. When her mental health was at its most fragile, she would isolate herself, spending days in her room alone.

"That's the exact thing that makes you feel significantly worse," the 26-year-old Denver woman said. "It creates a cycle where you're constantly getting dug into a deeper hole."

Part of her recovery involved forcing herself to leave her room to socialize or to exercise outside. But the COVID-19 pandemic has made all of that much harder. Instead of interacting with people on the street in her job as a political canvasser, she is working at home on the phone. And with social distancing rules in place, she has fewer opportunities to meet with friends.

"Since the virus started," she said, "it's been a lot easier to fall back into that cycle."

Between the challenges of the pandemic, the social unrest and the economic crisis, mental health providers are warning that the need for behavioral health services is growing. Yet faced with budgetary shortfalls, Colorado is cutting spending on a number of mental health and substance use treatment programs.

Across the country, the recession has cut state revenues at the same time the pandemic has increased costs, forcing lawmakers into painful decisions about how to balance their budgets. State legislatures have been forced to consider health care cuts and delay new health programs even in the midst of a health care crisis. But many lawmakers and health experts are concerned the cuts needed to balance state budgets now could exacerbate the pandemic and the recession down the line.

 

"Health care cuts tend to be on the table, and of course, it's counterproductive," said Edwin Park, a health policy professor at Georgetown University. When there's a recession, people lose their jobs and health insurance, he noted, the very moment when people need those health programs the most.

In Colorado, for example, lawmakers had to fill a $3.3 billion hole in the budget for fiscal year 2020, which started July 1. That included cuts to a handful of mental health programs, with small overall savings but potentially significant impact on those who relied on them.

They cut $1 million from a program designed to keep people with mental illness out of the hospital and another million from mental health services for juvenile and adult offenders. Lawmakers reduced funding for substance abuse treatment in county jails by $735,000 and eliminated $5 million earmarked for addiction treatment programs in underserved communities. And that's all on top of a 1% cut to Medicaid community providers who offer health care to the state's poorest residents.

Some of those cuts were offset by $15.2 million in federal CARES Act funding allocated to behavioral health care programs. But some programs were completely defunded. Cuts were targeted primarily at programs that hadn't started yet or hadn't been fully implemented. The rationale: Those cuts wouldn't have as deep an impact.

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