New department cutting back on expenses

December 18, 2009

ATLANTA -- With Georgia’s economy still struggling, the new Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities (DBHDD) is cutting back on expenses while working to maintain services for people with mental illness, developmental disabilities, and substance use disorders. By the end of the fiscal year in June, all of the agency’s staff not involved in direct clinical care at one of the state’s seven psychiatric hospitals will have taken twelve unpaid furlough days. Some comparatively expensive programs are being scaled back or eliminated. A five-percent reduction in contracts to the state’s Community Service Boards that’s been in place since July will be sustained through the end of the fiscal year. Where necessary, the people being served by DBHDD will be connected to alternative services offered through the department.

“We’re launching a new department at a particularly challenging time,” acknowledged Dr. Frank Shelp, Commissioner of DBHDD. “But just as Georgia families are making tough financial decisions every day, we too have to find ways to cut expenses to match declining income. What makes that especially difficult is that the obvious fat has been cut from the budget long ago. Now, wherever we scale back, people are going to be affected. Our job is to be strategic and thoughtful while living within our means.”

DBHDD was created by Governor Sonny Perdue and the General Assembly in the 2009 legislative session and began operations on July 1. Carved out of the former Department of Human Resources, the agency was tasked with building a new organization and beginning to correct long-standing deficiencies in Georgia’s behavioral health system while receiving no additional funding. When a round of budget cuts was required of state agencies the month after it was launched, DBHDD was exempted in part because of its already disadvantaged position.

Under scrutiny by the federal Department of Justice, which has questioned the safety and effectiveness of the state’s psychiatric hospitals, the department has moved aggressively to hire new staff, bring in badly-needed expertise, and build new partnerships that will improve care at the facilities. Some of these moves, such as DBHDD’s innovative partnership with the Medical College of Georgia in Augusta, have been nearly revenue-neutral, allowing the state to improve services at little or no additional cost. But some, such as plans to implement an electronic medical records system, will require new investments at a time when state revenues are declining.

Despite tough economic times – and in some cases because of them – providers and populations served by the department continue to call for more resources, about which Shelp remains realistic.

“State revenues are down sixteen-percent, so we know that every additional dollar we receive has to be taken from some other state program or service,” he said. “That’s why we have to be strategic about the way we use the dollars we have already to get the most out of them. We’re using better practices and technology to reduce costs, be more efficient, and improve care. And above all, we’re making sure that the investments and partnerships we do make bring benefits far beyond the sum of their parts.”

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Tom Wilson (