February 15, 2012

President Obama submitted his proposed federal budget for 2013 to Congress this week. As expected, it’s controversial. Much of the debate leading into the fall’s elections will be over what programs should be cut and how much taxes should be raised—if at all—on high income Americans in order to reduce the federal government’s deficit, let alone pay down the national debt.

As part of the debate, there will be choices important to individuals and families affected by mental illness, regardless of political party. Mental illness does not discriminate. It affects Republicans, Democrats and Independents alike.

For example, the President’s proposal would cut $360 billion in Medicare and Medicaid payments over 10 years, in part by cutting payments to providers. It also would freeze the National Institutes of Health budget, which is the source for scientific research into mental illness. Along with disability income, housing and other practical needs, these areas make the difference for treatment and recovery.

The squeeze on Medicaid especially affects state mental health care systems. In November, 2012, NAMI released a special report that outlined the impact of that squeeze, along with state budget cuts.

Expect state budget crises to continue. This past week, debate in several states and the impact of cuts—and rising demand—filled headlines in Florida, Iowa, Ohio and Oklahoma. In Florida, The Bradenton Herald posted a video of a protest that raised public awareness of the local impact of a proposed $91 million cut in state mental health care.

“If I didn’t have this service, I probably would be homeless,” Jeffrey Vassey, a 55-year-old man living with schizophrenia told the paper.

Budget debates speak in terms of trillions, billions, millions and thousands of dollars, depending on the size of the community—national, state or local.

It’s easy to lose perspective.

At the ground level, however, the perspective is easy. Mental health care often makes the difference between living on the streets and moving toward recovery. It can make the difference between life and death.

Let’s all keep that fact in mind and remind legislators and political candidates of it every chance we get as the budget debates continue.

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