The Missouri Department of Mental Health recently announced its intention to close two mental health facilities and downsize several others. Throughout the state, concerned citizens, police officers, and union members have expressed opposition. They say the closures and downsizings will result in the loss of 375 health care positions, lower the quality of services, and increase the burden on local communities.

Service Employees International Union Local 2000, which represents Missouri’s health care professionals, is concerned not only about member job loss. They are also concerned that closures and downsizings will affect the quality of service available to mental health patients.

Closures and downsizings of mental health facilities will leave many of Missouri’s mentally ill, suicidal, depressed, bipolar, and drug addicted citizens without access to treatment, medication, and emotional and psychological support. Many will become homeless.

Megan Peterson, a Local 2000 organizer, told the World, “Many mental health patients may even have to wait hours in the back of a police car before they can be treated. When facilities close or downsize the patients don’t just go away. They still have mental health needs. And since their facility no longer has the capacity to care for them, or has been closed, they have to be transported … in many instances by police or ambulance.”

Privatization increases costs

The recent announcement has also exposed the larger systemic problems of privatizing what have traditionally been public sector services. Republican politicians claim that privatization streamlines productivity and increases efficiency. According to Missouri Speaker of the House Catherine Hanaway, “Downsizing … will boost the economy. We won’t have to raise taxes to pay for those government employees.”

In the real world, though, privatization means that fewer people are doing more work (with lower pay and fewer benefits) and that many uninsured, mentally ill, psychotic, or drug addicted patients will be turned away (without medication or treatment), or be placed in jail. In fact, Polk County Sheriff Mike Parson is concerned that patients “will fall through the cracks and receive no further treatment, or end up in jail.” While in jail, many patients may not receive the medication or treatment they need, and for those that do, taxpayers will foot the bill, not private institutions.

The DMH says that the closings and downsizings are necessary because of “budget constraints.” But, privatizing mental health facilities will have a negative effect on Missouri’s state budget.

It’s about profits

According to Peterson, the DMH wants Missourians to believe privatization is a budgetary problem. But in reality, she says, “They aren’t cutting the budget. They are reallocating and spending more. Instead of funding state run facilities, the DMH is reallocating more money into for profit, private facilities. This is the largest reallocation of funds in the history of the Department of Mental Health.”

The DMH website reports “core reductions” will equal 7.4 million, while “core redirections” will equal 8.6 million. In other words, public, state-run facilities will see a budget reduction of 7.4 million, while, for-profit, private facilities will see a budget increase of 8.6 million.

“The Missouri Department of Mental Health is not motivated by a desire to provide quality mental health services. They have caved into private, for-profit interests,” Peterson added.

According to Mitch Landucci, a health care professional whose facility was recently closed, “Downsizing is about profits. It isn’t about servicing the needs of the mentally ill. It isn’t about taking care of working families.”

All across the nation, privatization has wreaked havoc on our public services. Schools, hospitals and other services vital to the needs of ordinary people have been privatized, eliminating thousands of jobs and lowering the quality of services that millions of people rely on.

Missouri is a battleground state. In this year’s presidential elections, we need to send a clear message to presidential hopefuls and local politicians that privatization of our public services is unacceptable. Now is the time to mount a fight-back strategy. If we wait until November, it will be too late.

The author can be reached at tonypec@pww.org.

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CONTRIBUTOR

Tony Pecinovsky
Tony Pecinovsky

Tony Pecinovsky serves as fundraising co-chair for St. Louis Jobs with Justice, is a member of the United Media Guild and delegate to the St. Louis Central Labor Council. He is also the president of the St. Louis Workers' Education Society. His work has been published in the St. Louis Labor Tribune, Alternet, Shelterforce, Political Affairs and Z-Magazine, among other publications.

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