State hospital funding cuts mean longer waits, advocates say

Published: Wednesday, January 11, 2012 at 9:48 p.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, January 11, 2012 at 9:48 p.m.

MACCLENNY — The deepest budget cut that Northeast Florida State Hospital has endured in more than 20 years has meant more mental patients per clinician at the hospital, but there is not a larger backlog of patients seeking treatment, hospital administrators say.

Yet some members of the hospital's advisory board had a warning Wednesday for those administrators: Due to the cutbacks, facilities that send mentally ill patients to NFSH are worried that these patients will end up on a waiting list for getting help at NFSH. Northeast Florida State Hospital offers the most intensive mental health treatment available in Florida.

“There's no room at the inn,” Elaine Holt, of Daytona Beach, an advisory board member for the state hospital in Macclenny, said of what she's heard people say at her local hospital, which treats the mentally ill.

In his budget last year, Gov. Rick Scott had proposed privatizing the facility in Macclenny, which serves 30 of Florida's 67 counties. NFSH is currently under the jurisdiction of the Department of Children & Families.

With 633 beds, NFSH is the largest state-owned provider of psychiatric care and treatment to individuals who have been committed for psychiatric treatment in non-criminal cases.

The effort to privatize NFSH fell flat after it was considered in a Senate bill last year, but the salary budget at the state hospital had to be cut 5 percent — by $2.83 million.

It was part of a large across-the-board state cut to a number of human service agencies as part of an effort to reduce state spending by billions.

At NFSH, the reduction meant cutting 10 percent of the positions there, down to 1,069.5 full-time equivalents.

NFSH Administrator Joseph A. Infantino said that reductions have meant that the clinician-to-patient ratio shifted from one clinician to every 35 to 40 patients to one clinician for every 50 patients.

“It's had an effect on our caseloads,” Infantino said.

Infantino said that the average length of stay at the facility has dropped — mostly because of better drugs and better treatment, he said. Between August 2010 and January 2012, the length of stay at NFSH has been reduced by 31 percent, so that half the patients have stayed at the hospital less than 3.75 years and the other half have stayed longer than that.

But Kent Vann, executive director of St. Francis House, one of the homeless shelters in Gainesville, said what he's seen most recently would suggest that the stays at the hospital in Macclenny need to be longer.

“We see more people who need shelter, need help and need care and they are not able to do that for themselves,” he said.

Lillian Cason, of Lake City, said that the state hospital has made a big difference for her family. A close relative has been stable for almost a decade now — after spending a decade at the Macclenny facility, she said.

“There will always be a need for a state hospital,” said Cason, who volunteers on the facility's advisory board.

“I don't know what we would have done without it,” she said.

“Mental illness is a real thing,” she said.

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