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Cuts & Consequences

MT social workers, case managers rallying to protect clients

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MISSOULA - The Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services saw a budget cut of more than $200 million last year resulting in people losing their jobs and clients suffering from a loss of services -- particularly to mental health care.

Social workers and case managers have been mobilizing to protect their profession, and advocate for the well-being of some of the most vulnerable people in Montana.

“Like one-in-five people in our state are impacted by mental illness, and these cuts are going to cut deep into all our pocketbooks, whether we know mentally ill people or not," said private practitioner and social workers organizer Andrew Laue, L.C.S.W.

He knows that dealing with mental illness is best done by positively enhancing relationships.

“Its interesting in our field that generally, its the poeople who have the most direct contact with clients, like case managers, in home workers, aids that support them, get paid the least, so they are most cost effective service, and they provide the most regulatory structural management and support,” he said.

State budget cuts in 2017 drastically reduced funding for these services, undercutting some of the most affordable options for people living with mental health issues. Many case workers don’t even make $15.00 an hour.

Clients end up requiring more expensive interventions like therapists and psychiatrists.

And if they completely fall apart because they’ve lost their in-community services, people will end up in residential care, which is exponentially more expensive.

"And at the same time, we’re decimating a profession, the social work profession. We’ve had almost 100 firings in our state since March 1, of people in my profession," Laue added.

Laue is a licensed clinical social worker who has been practicing in Montana for decades. He says the consequences of these cuts is overwhelming to consider.

“There’s a crisis here, for people in our state -- and it's a high-cost crisis -- because we know if we don’t meet people’s needs, like on the front end, those needs are going to grow, and the interventions on the back end become incredibly costly," Laue told MTN News.

Its already happening. The Missoula County Attorney’s office is reporting a significant spike in the number of involuntary committments they are having to pursue, due to people with severe, disabling mental illness who can’t live without the supports that have been ripped out from under them. Residential care is more expensive, and taxpayers are picking up the tab.

Social workers are turning their dismay into action. Laue is coordinating efforts to reach out to social workers who’ve lost their jobs and support those still practicing.

Some direct health care providers have had to protect themselves as well. With uncertain working environments and industry-wide cuts, a union for caseworkers formed in Missoula at the end of last year called the Montana Mental Health Workers Collective.

Brooke Callaghan is a mental health worker in the day treatment center at Western Montana Mental Health Center.

The day treatment center was initially intended to support higher functioning people with mental illness.

"There’s confusion, and sort of feeling like they have been left to the wayside, and ya know, in a lot of ways they have. And it's really heartbreaking to see that every day. There’s a lot of clients that are not necessarily day treatment clients, so we have not built that relationship with them over the years," Callaghan said.

"We are now tasked to do these really intimate things with, like finding housing and deciding what’s appropriate, and yeah it takes years to develop relationships -- and with that comes trust. So we’re trying to establish trust in a really short period of time so people don’t miss out on what they need," Callaghan continued.

Callaghan says the union provided a place to connect with other front-line workers who are handling these tough issues day in and day out.

Several settlements have happened between the Montana Mental Health Workers Collective, and WMMHC since last fall, as workers began to push back against cuts to their daily work. They are affiliated with international union, Unite Here.

A recently launched coalition is bringing together clients, workers, and providers or employers. The groups all have common ground -- they need the Montana Legislature to adequately fund DPHHS for their quality of life, their jobs, and their businesses.

The coalition plans to work with the state to ensure that DPHHS are adequately funded and they want to be able to provide input into how the department develops their regulations.

“It's a matter of life and death for some of the consumers. It's no joke. This is not acceptable. It is intolerable. A lot of direct care workers that I know are completely outraged that we have come to this," said Mark Ander a union organizer representing Unite Here Local 23.

“If you can take a step back from politics and just understand that everybody has a certain quality of life that they deserve. So many people through no fault of their own, are unable to achieve that quality of life, without the kind of services that we offer," Callaghan added.

You can read more stories from our cuts & Consequences series by clicking here.

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