Health care advocates make their case to budget panel

TRENTON – Human services advocates pleaded with Assembly lawmakers Tuesday to protect services they said are critical to the state’s neediest residents.

CEO Debra Wentz and other officials of the N.J. Mental Health and Addiction Agencies, for example, pointed out to the Budget Committee that over 500,000 people benefit each year from needed behavioral and addiction services as more than a dozen clients of one such agency, Integrity House, stood before the committee members.

They estimated the state would save a $1 billion a year through timely intervention services that mitigate more expensive options such as emergency rooms, they sought a 5 percent cost of living adjustment and other funding to fully serve clients whose needs have only become greater in a post-Sandy New Jersey, and they pointed out that roughly 20 percent of those in need in the general population are getting needed treatment.

“We have significant holes in our mental health delivery system,’’ Assemblyman Albert Coutinho, D-29, Newark, acknowledged. “There’s a lot more we need to do in this area.”

And Assemblywoman Bonnie Watson Coleman, D-15, Trenton, said the proposed budget is inadequate to meet the need.

Picking up on the theme of funding not being able to meet the growing need, Phillip Lubitz of the National Alliance on Mental Illness New Jersey talked about the growth of alternative treatment programs as the move to close developmental centers accelerates under this administration.

He said that while one year in a state hospital costs approximately $150,000, there was a $2 million grant to serve some 400 people in six programs in counties including Hudson, Essex, Warren, Ocean and Burlington, but to fully fund the effort in all 21 counties would require $10 million to serve some 500 to 600 people.

Coutinho said that it is apparent from the health care advocates’ testimony the state is not prepared for the Medicaid expansion that the administration accepted.

N.J. Primary Care Association President Katherine Grant-Davis said that they have 106 sites in 20 counties and although they turn no one away, they are not readily staffed and equipped to handle potentially another 300,000-plus patients that the expanded Medicaid will cover, especially when specialists are sometimes needed.

Gov. Chris Christie last month unveiled a proposed $32.9 billion budget that includes no tax increases, full contribution to the pension system, expanded Medicaid, and historic levels of school aid.

However, the budget proposes flat municipal aid at a time towns are facing stiff challenges in rebuilding from last year’s Superstorm.

The budget calls for revenues 4.9 percent over adjusted fiscal year 2013 revenues, and projects to leave the state with a $300 million surplus.

Health care advocates make their case to budget panel