Cuts to Michigan’s mental health budget cost state’s most vulnerable

Ann Mullen, Ross Jones and Adam Brewster

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Newly instituted cuts have left some of Michigan’s most vulnerable without health services that mental health providers say could have catastrophic results.

The cuts effect those with mental illness, developmental disorders and other conditions, like Christy Assenmacher’s son Denny.

“He had been different since he was born, I could tell there was something different since the day he was born,” Christy said.

Ten years ago, Denny was diagnosed with severe autism, a disorder that makes it virtually impossible for him to understand other people, communicate his feelings and develop relationships.  When he can’t express himself, Denny sometimes becomes violent.

“I’ve had to call the police on him a few times,” she said. “And he’s not a bad kid, he’s not a bad person.  He doesn’t understand this world and when he’s upset, he doesn’t know how to deal with it.”

Ever since his diagnosis, Denny and his mom have found respite at an agency called The Guidance Center, a non-profit group that provides mental health services that Christy’s insurance won’t cover, but the State of Michigan would.

The center offers services like speech therapy, in-home support, someone to help Denny in school and a case manger to handle his therapy and medications.  For Christy, it was a lifesaver, especially since her husband—a longtime Southgate police officer—died suddenly last year of a heart attack.

“He’s come so far because of all the help.  It takes so many people to help a child with autism really improve or thrive,” Assenmacher said.

Health coverage expands, but some services end

But earlier this year, those services abruptly stopped after lawmakers in Lansing cut funding to them by more than half.  It happened after Governor Snyder proposed something called Healthy Michigan, a program that expanded Medicaid to nearly half a million more Michigan residents.

It was hailed by both parties, shifting health coverage expenses from the state to the federal government, and saving the state millions.  When it became law, the state cut back on how much it put towards kids like Denny, thinking Medicaid would cover the difference.

But mental health providers across Michigan say the state cut too deep: more than $40 million too deep.  It caused them to cut back their programs, and left kids like Denny and others out in the cold.

Denny’s mom doesn’t qualify for Healthy Michigan because she makes too much money, but her insurance won’t pay for the services that her son needs, and she says she can’t afford them.  Denny’s been without help from the Guidance Center for three months, and his mom says he’s getting worse.

“When’s the last time he was violent?” asked Channel 7’s Ross Jones.

“This weekend,” she responded. “He got a butter knife, and I‘m sure he wouldn’t have used it but, he starts pushing and shoving me.”

Christy’s other son, 12-year-old Eric, ultimately came to her mom’s defense.  She says today, he’s her only support.

“He helps me, he’s stronger and he keeps Denny in line a lot,” she said.

Lynda Zeller is a deputy director in the Department of Community Health, which pushed the cuts to state mental health spending, from $281 million in 2013 to $97.5 million in 2015, and says no one should have lost coverage.

“There should be a smooth enough path where no one should have to lose services,” Zeller said.

“But some have, and are you comfortable knowing that some are?” Jones asked.

“Of course, none of us are comfortable when a person needs services who had them before doesn’t have them,” Zeller responded.

Service cuts deemed “unintended consequences”

For 30 years, Adult Well-Being Services of Detroit has provided guardians for the mentally disabled, elderly and abused who can’t take care of themselves. But in April, CEO Karen Schrock and her board of directors chose to end the program, citing a lack of funds.

“This is an example of unintended consequences,” Schrock said, speaking of the Healthy Michigan program.  “You think you’re doing a good thing and you think  you’re planning properly.

Today, Adult Well-Being Services is scrambling to find new guardians for approximately 140 clients.  Schrock believes that at least half won’t be able to find alternatives.

“Without this kind of oversight and support,” she said, “people will die.”

High-ranking senator ducks questions

Pleas from people like Schrock didn’t convince Lansing lawmakers to add funding during this week’s budget negotiations.  Their scheduled summer recess begins today, and they will leave the Capitol without providing any additional funding to help kids like Denny.  It’s a decision that some, like Senator Roger Kahn, aren’t eager to discuss.  He refused to be interviewed for nearly a week, then ducked out a back elevator on Tuesday just to avoid questions.

When approached Tuesday by 7 Action News in Lansing on the senate floor, Kahn literally fled from our camera.

“I’m being harassed by this gentlemen,” Kahn told a senate security guard, before escaping to his office.


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