Budget woes for BCDC|Service providers across the state hurting from cuts

Published 6:58 am Sunday, November 29, 2009

Community Editor

Phil Elks knows he’s No. 1 in the Elks family.
If only the state put the same priority on Elks, and others like him, as his family does, there would be less doubt about his future, that family contends.
Elks, the oldest of Dalton and Shirley Elks’ four children, has Down syndrome. His aging parents fear that Elks will soon be weaned from Beaufort County Developmental Center’s vocational program.
“My son is 57 years old, almost, so he’s old enough to retire out of the program, but when he does, our life is gone again because we’ve got to be right there every minute of every day,” Dalton Elks said in the company of his special-needs son.
Pam Smith Ross shares a similar fear regarding her 2-year-old son, Lawson Wade Ross, also with Down syndrome. Ross, an ARC of Beaufort County board member, is worried that her son may never receive the same services from BCDC that Elks’ son has grown accustomed to receiving.
“He might not ever make it there,” she said, noting that similar special-needs providers across the state have folded because of a lack of funding.
Ross said her son has made progress in developing basic skills, but she fears he could regress without professional help.
“If he loses his services, he could easily slip back,” she said.
Ross’ son takes speech therapy, among other special-needs classes.
For her part, Ross is trying to educate herself and her twin 17-year-old daughters, Jenna and Ashley, about her son’s needs. Ross said she regularly attends special-needs workshops and is involved with several nonprofit organizations for individuals with disabilities.
Ross considers herself an advocate for children with special needs. Ross said she will do whatever it takes to see that the state continues to provide funding for centers like BCDC.
BCDC has experienced reductions in a number of services. BCDC’s local management entity, East Carolina Behavioral Health, which provides funding to the center, has told the center to reduce funding in its developmental-therapy program by 21 percent and its residential programs by 10 percent, according to BCDC Executive Director Chris Kiricoples.
Kiricoples fears the reductions are just the beginning of more funding cuts in BCDC’s services.
“We’re aware and worried that the situation could get more difficult,” he said. “(The reductions have) caused us to take a hard look at the budget for the remainder of the year.”
BCDC’s revenue this year is down some $70,000 from last year, and the center has implemented a hiring freeze on most vacant positions.
“We’re being very cautious and reviewing every vacancy. If it doesn’t involve direct care, we’re freezing the position,” Kiricoples said.
Even with the hiring freeze and funding reductions, the center has yet to eliminate services altogether for clients with mild disabilities. Kiricoples said that similar providers across the state have turned away high-functioning clients because of cuts in the state budget. Some providers have closed their doors altogether, he added.
“It’s getting harder and harder for people with whatever needs they have to reach resources,” Kiricoples said. “They could end up at state hospitals and institutions.”
Kiricoples said the purpose of the center, and similar providers, is to serve mentally disabled individuals in their own communities, close to home.
“It all has a cumulative effect and impact,” he said.
Cuts to the state budget have resulted in a $738 million decrease in the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services’ expected $5.54 billion budget for the fiscal year. This on top of a $40 million cut in services, which went into effect Oct. 1, according to Mark Van Sciver, spokesperson for the Department of Health and Human Services.
“There is definitely going to be an impact” from the initial cuts to the department’s budget, Van Sciver said. “It’s too early to see the impact, but there will be some.”
The department has told local management entities that they can’t cut crisis services, but all other services are expendable, Van Sciver said.
“Will every provider still be in business? I can’t imagine,” he said.
The department’s community services have been hit particularly hard by the cuts. About $75 million of those services’ $390 million budget have been cut.
“All of this is tied into the state’s reform of mental health since 2001. (The reform) was supposed to be done in five years,” said John Morgan, Beaufort County Mental Health Association’s volunteer administrator and treasurer.
The county’s association, an affiliate of the N.C. Mental Health Association, works collaboratively with BCDC, the behavioral unit at Beaufort County Medical Center, the Caswell Center in Kinston and Cherry Hospital in Goldsboro, according to Morgan.
Morgan said the NCMHA’s main objective is to lobby the Legislature for funding. He called it a “constant battle.”
A battle that the NCMHA seems to be losing, he noted.
And the biggest losers of all are the ones who need help the most, according to Dalton Elks, a co-founder of BCDC and current board member.
“I see us going backwards fast because people with special needs … it takes a little longer to teach them and they regress a little faster when you stop your ongoing instructions,” he said. “It shows pretty quickly.”
At a recent BCDC board meeting, budget concerns were discussed. For now, the biggest concern is whether there will be a budget to discuss in the future.
“Our programs are going to phase on out unless we can get somebody’s attention that thinks it’s important to save them,” Elks said.