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Mental health advocates say state ignores them

February 14, 2002

Mental health advocates say state ignores them



By LAURA ERNDE
laurae@herald-mail.com


ANNAPOLIS - Wiley Rutledge of Hagerstown started off Wednesday's meeting with state mental health officials with a doozy of an accusation.

"Number one, we feel like we were lied to," said Rutledge, spokesman for the Washington County Mental Health Advisory Committee.

Rutledge was referring to an incident last summer. Two weeks after Mental Hygiene Administration Executive Director Oscar L. Morgan told a county official that state mental health services would not be cut, local agencies started feeling the brunt of cutbacks.

When the committee wrote to Morgan seeking more information in October, there was no response.

"We feel like we're the enemy. We are completely ignored and quite frankly, that's offensive," Rutledge said.

At the other end of the table, Morgan and two of his bosses with the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene listened to the concerns of Rutledge and about a dozen other mental health advocates from Washington County.

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Health Secretary Georges C. Benjamin defended Morgan. It's possible he didn't know about the impending cuts, he said, because the budget picture often changes quickly.

Morgan apologized for not responding to their questions. His office never got the letter, he said.

"We answer everybody. If you don't hear from us, give us a call," Benjamin said.

Benjamin said the state was forced to tighen its belt because the budget hasn't increased enough to keep up with an influx of people coming into the mental health system.

In Washington County alone, the number of people getting mental health services has increased by 43 percent in the last year, from 1,419 to 2,024.

Compounding the problem, private health insurers are refusing to cover mental health services, which has shifted the burden to the state, Benjamin said.

After the meeting, Washington County mental health advocates said they are were worried that people aren't getting the services they need.

But they thought the meeting, arranged by Washington County's delegation to the Maryland General Assembly, was helpful.

"We didn't come up with any concrete solutions or goals. It gave us an opportunity to clear the air," said Sharon Smith of the Washington County Mental Health Advisory Committee.

"It put some valid points on both sides on the table. There's lots of needy families out there and a lot of systems issues," said Mark Lannon of the Washington County Mental Health Center.

Delegation Chairman Del. Robert A. McKee, R-Washington, said it was good to at least open the lines of communication.

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