State budget decimates Staten Island mental health program

From the Staten Island Advance:

Island’s Pouch Center loses 800G-plus in funding as state budgeteers fail to provide
Thursday, April 02, 2009

By JUDY L. RANDALL
STATEN ISLAND ADVANCE

STATEN ISLAND, N.Y. — The state budget has decimated one of Staten Island’s oldest mental health programs, pulling more than $800,000 in funding and effectively ending treatment services as of July 1 to some 1,000 disabled children and their families, who are among the borough’s most economically disadvantaged.

The Elizabeth W. Pouch Center for Special People, one of three divisions of the Staten Island Mental Health Society in West Brighton, will lose $784,000 from the New York State Office of Mental Retardation and Developmental Disabilities (OMRDD), said Dr. Kenneth Popler.

Dr. Popler, executive director of the Mental Health Society, said yesterday he learned of the devastating state budget cuts after getting a call from the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene telling him they were forced to pull their additional $73,000 which they send to Pouch through OMRDD because OMRDD, faced with having to make deep cuts in its budget, was suspending funding.

This, Dr. Popler told the Advance, after OMRDD repeatedly had told him, “Don’t worry, Ken,” when he sought assurances from the state that they weren’t about to pull the plug on the 35-year-old center. As a result, Dr. Popler said he had held off making personal pleas to the borough’s state lawmakers to retain funding. Now, he added, OMRDD isn’t returning his calls.

“Our patients will have nowhere to go,” said Dr. Popler. “They truly will have nowhere to go. … Pouch Center will close, except for a skeleton staff,” with just three or four of 25 employees remaining.

Dr. Popler said Pouch annually treats upwards of 1,000 Staten Islanders of all ages, although the center works primarily with children. He said the state wants Pouch to treat only Medicaid families, who account for just 10 percent of their clientele.

“We work with people who come in off the street,” said Dr. Popler. “There is no HHC facility here. … There is really no other place for the general population to go that will serve them.”

Dr. Popler said patients have one or a combination of developmental disabilities, including mental retardation, cerebral palsy, autism and epilepsy, with some requiring prescription medications.

Pat Miller of Great Kills, a 1994 Advance Woman of Achievement, said her Down syndrome daughter has been a patient at Pouch for the last few years.

“It is shameful,” said Mrs. Miller said of the cuts. “They serve so many. It will be a great loss. Where will they get the help they need? My phone has been ringing off the hook about it.”

Meanwhile, Assemblyman Lou Tobacco (R-South Shore) called Pouch a “critical component” and said he has been in touch with the commissioner of OMRDD to “discuss possible restoration of funding.”

Assemblyman Michael Cusick (D-Mid-Island) also seemed to offer a glimmer of hope, saying, “Once the budget is signed by the governor, it will allow us to focus on particular situations such as this.”

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