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Mental health provider closes White County site

Budget cuts may force some patients to travel for care

POSTED: January 16, 2009 12:18 a.m.

State budget cuts have hit Gainesville-based Avita Community Partners, the mental health provider for 13 Northeast Georgia counties.

This month, the financial crunch forced the agency to close its mental health center in White County, which was in the county’s government services building on Helen Highway in Cleveland.

Most of the White County clients are being redirected to the Habersham County center in Demorest. That site also is serving clients from counties that already have had service cutbacks, including Rabun and Banks.

"Our goal was to preserve the staff and programs that directly serve the people," said Gerry Cyranowski, Avita’s director of services. "We made the decision to close some buildings and eliminate some administrative staff."

Avita, formerly known as Georgia Mountains Community Services, operates three sites in Gainesville, with separate outpatient facilities for adults, children and people with developmental disabilities.

No changes are planned for any of the Gainesville locations.

Avita’s annual budget is about $28.5 million, with 34 percent of that coming from Medicaid and 57 percent from State Contract Services.

Cyranowski said the latter source of funding has been reduced by 6.5 percent, and with Georgia’s bleak revenue picture, further cuts are expected.

He said with the recent closures and layoffs, Avita hopes to save about $1.4 million.

But even as the agency is shrinking, the demand for its services is growing. In the 2008 fiscal year, Avita served 10,300 people, an increase of 5.6 percent over the previous year.

"People are under stress and have a greater need for help," Cyranowski said.

So Avita is trying to do more with less.

"It’s incredibly expensive to maintain separate buildings in each county," he said. "We’re trying to achieve efficiencies, and we had to make some tough decisions."

Cyranowski insists that Avita will still have a presence in White County.

"Even in counties where we’ve closed a center, we are still heavily involved in the school system," he said.

He added that "community integration services," in which Avita employees visit clients at home, will continue.

"We’re switching to electronic medical records, and the staff will carry laptops, so they won’t really need an office," he said.

Kim Robinson, an advocate for the mentally ill in White County, questions whether this approach can replace the mental health centers.

"I just don’t see how it’s feasible to try to serve all these people in their homes," she said.

On the other hand, Robinson believes forcing clients to drive to a center outside their county may mean some of them won’t get the services they need. People with serious mental illness often are unable to work, so their income is limited, and they may not have transportation.

"I think it will be extremely difficult for some people to get to appointments in another county," she said.

Most rural counties have no psychologists or psychiatrists, and Avita is their only mental health provider. Robinson believes that with the cutbacks, some people will go without treatment.

"I’m afraid we’ll see a rise in crime and substance abuse," she said, noting that White County had a record six homicides in 2008, and most of those cases involved people who had a mental illness or substance abuse problem.

Cyranowski said White County officials still want Avita to have a physical presence in Cleveland. He said the agency has been offered a small space at the county courthouse, which currently is undergoing renovation and expansion.

The room would not be large enough to offer services such as counseling. But Cyranowski hopes that by early March, a psychiatrist will be able to see seriously ill patients there one or two days a week, to prescribe and adjust their medications.

The losers in all of this will be people who have milder forms of mental disorders. They could benefit from a treatment such as group therapy, but that service won’t be available in White County.

"We have to focus on those with the greatest needs, those with severe mental illness," said Cyranowski.



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