Originally created 08/22/96

State cuts health funds



ATLANTA - Programs that help the homeless, disabled and mentally ill absorbed sharp cuts in a money-saving plan sent Wednesday to the governor and legislators.

The Department of Human Resources approved $61.4 million in reductions as part of Gov. Zell Miller's directive for agencies to "redirect" 5 percent of their spending out of ineffective or low-priority uses.

DHR Commissioner Tommy Olmstead said the reductions were targeted at contracts with outside consultants and will result in few, if any, lost jobs.

"Cutting is not an easy task. Asking for money is a whole lot easier," said Mr. Olmstead, who got the spending plan approved Wednesday by his agency's governing board at a meeting in Macon.

The spending plan diverts $14.9 million out of programs to treat the mentally ill or mentally retarded in hospitals, instead offering less expensive out-patient care that might be available closer to home.

Overall, the budget is $1.26 billion - a 2.5 percent increase over the current year thanks to the growing "Work First" program, which attempts to find jobs for people on welfare.

The budget is based on the assumption that 7,100 fewer families - at an average cost of $243 a month - will be on welfare next year because of a brightening economy and more emphasis on helping people get work.

It still faces scrutiny from the governor, then will be submitted to the General Assembly in January.

Among the largest reductions are:

- $4.8 million cut from grants to local health departments, a figure partly offset by an increase in grants for birth control and family planning counseling;

- $6.6 million from DHR's managerial overhead, including the loss of 19 administrative jobs at regional health districts;

- $1.3 million out of caseworkers to check up on reported elderly abuse;

- $1.1 million from "sheltered employment" programs that provide make-work, subsidized jobs for the handicapped.

Anita Beaty, who heads the Georgia Coalition to End Homelessness, called the possible loss of her group's $224,000 subsidy "incredible."

"That is precious little money to deal with the most vulnerable of our citizens," said Ms. Beaty, who said the money is used statewide both for studies on the problem of homelessness and for direct aid to emergency shelters. "The assumption is that homeless people don't vote and have no voice."

The director of the Savannah Association for the Blind, which is targeted to lose its entire $262,000 state grant, said he'll be alerting hometown lawmakers to help save the program.

"You've got to be kidding - that is every penny we're getting," Walt Simmons, the association's director, said when told of the DHR board's vote.

"Right now I am sick, because that is practically half our budget and they know it," said Mr. Simmons, whose group mainly helps teach living skills to elderly and middle-aged people who have lost their sight late in life.

The spending plan faces likely political opposition because it targets legislators' popular hometown programs, some of which were put in the budget this year over the DHR's objections.

For instance,the cuts target a pet project of Sen. Charles Walker, D-Augusta, the powerful Senate health chairman, whose hometown would lose a $60,000 grant for anti-drug plays in schools.