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A social service 'disaster'

Many Jackson County residents who rely on social or health services may have to live without them if voters reject an income tax increase

Along with holiday greetings and New Year's wishes, this month's mail will bring dark tidings to many of Jackson County's most vulnerable residents and the people who serve them.

The state is sending at least 38,500 letters to local people notifying them that their social service or health benefits will be reduced or eliminated entirely by March.

At the same time, state and county agencies have sent layoff notices to at least three dozen mental health, senior services and child welfare case workers ' with more to follow.

People in danger of losing services include the mentally ill, abused and neglected children, drug addicts and alcoholics enrolled in treatment, and the poor and frail elderly.

It's a man-made disaster, said Don Bruland, senior and disability services director for the Rogue Valley Council of Governments. We're going to essentially look at it as if it were disaster planning. We're just going to triage the worst cases.

The prospective cuts come as the state struggles to balance its budget in the face of plummeting tax revenues. Some &

36;88 million in social service cuts will take effect if voters in January reject a proposed temporary income tax increase.

That would be in addition to &

36;23 million in firm cuts made to the state Department of Human Services budget in November by the Legislature's emergency board.

Other cuts are required as part of the department's &

36;28.4 million share of a nearly &

36;112 million deficit predicted by a December revenue forecast.

Whether the cuts are certain or tentative, preparing for them as required by contract or law has been painful for local administrators.

They were just another kick in the groin, said Hank Collins, director of Jackson County Health and Human Services.

Among the cuts are plans to eliminate monthly payments of about &

36;300 to people with long-term disabilities, plans to eliminate care for certain levels of Medicaid clients, and plans to cut prescription drug support for mentally ill adults and children.

Many of these people will deteriorate to the point where they have to come back onto service at a lower level of ability, Bruland said. We'll cut other people with no chance of coming back.

Especially hard-hitting will be prospective cuts to alcohol and drug treatment services, said Collins. He notified local providers this week that nine county-funded treatment beds could be cut.

Our entire alcohol and drug treatment system is going to be wrecked, Collins said. Of all the systems that I see falling apart, it's our A and D system that holds everything in place.

Incidences of child abuse, domestic violence, health problems and crime are all linked to substance abuse, he noted.

Under the proposals, many of the 4,500 people served by OnTrack Inc. each year, for example, would lose services ranging from treatment beds to funds for outpatient services, said Executive Director Rita Sullivan.

This is a done deal unless a miracle happens, she said.

The cuts are especially frustrating to Sullivan, whose nonprofit agency contracts with the state and county to provide what's widely acknowledged as effective treatment.

Why are we taking out a system that is largely privatized and non-PERS? she said. If the sentiment is that there's money in government, why take out a privatized system?

The administrators predict the scope and depth of the cuts won't become apparent to the average taxpayer until it's too late.

The effects could include more homeless people on local streets ' including the elderly and the mentally ill ' more unlicensed, uninsured drivers under the influence of alcohol and drugs and fewer options for help.

I think people will see it when their own family members need treatment and they can't get it, Sullivan said.

Bill Connollyh, 73, may lose the assistance he receives from Senior and Disabled Services as part of stateside cutbacks. Mail Tribune / Bob Pennell - Mail Tribune Bob Pennell