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Funding cuts for mental health transit will have ripple effect

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CANTON - With funding fast running out, the St. Lawrence County Community Development Program’s mental health transportation program only has until June to continue operating.

The program transports 80 county residents to community-based mental health programs. Recent changes to how Medicaid is administered in the state resulted in a drastic funding cut that may see an end to the more than 25-year-old program.

CDP Executive Director Norma S. Cary said an additional $150,000 is needed by June to keep the vans on the road.

Daughters of Charity Sister Donna M. Franklin, director of Catholic Charities for the Diocese of Ogdensburg, said that if the transportation goes away, the people who depend on the services would be massively impacted. Catholic Charities operates Seaway House, a mental health day program that gives members a chance to get involved in volunteer opportunities throughout the community.

“Any cut in any kind of transportation for anyone in this county is a very serious issue because of the lack of public transportation,” she said. “You’re talking about a very vulnerable population. Any cut there is a very serious and unjust move.”

Mrs. Cary said CDP transports 13 people daily to programs at Seaway House. Others going to the Step By Step drop-in center or to day programs at the St. Lawrence Psychiatric Center.

With the state making an effort to step up community-based mental health services, Mrs. Cary said, “More people will be community-based, so I think that it’s important that the services are available. But people need to get there.”

Sr. Franklin said Seaway House supports some minimal transportation services, but the organization is only able to support people who are staying with them for the day. People who go to multiple services a day need transportation assistance, she said.

“It’s a real attack on some of the most vulnerable people,” Sr. Franklin said. “In the north country, the one thing you do not cut is transportation.”

Besides removing transportation services for mental health clients, Mrs. Cary said, the funding cut could impact other aspects of CDP.

Transportation funding is spread out among the many services that the program offers, Mrs. Cary said. The cut would likely mean that three full-time drivers and one part-timer would be laid off.

Programs like the Head Start would end up taking on the full cost of transportation support services, Mrs. Cary said, including nearly $100,000 for a mechanical maintenance and transportation, which could result in diminishing services across the board.

Mrs. Cary said that if CDP has to close its garage, the program would need to contract with a local service station to keep their vans on the road. She said that would impact how quickly CDP can get broken vehicles back on the road.

“I’d like Medicaid to reverse their decision,” Mrs. Cary said.

Mrs. Cary has been working with representatives from the offices of state Sen. Patricia A. Ritchie, R-Heuvelton, and Assemblywoman Addie J. Russell, D-Theresa, to attempt to solve the issue with the state Health Department.

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