Avon CT School Board eliminates all social workers to “enhance” mental health services.

Yes, you read the headline correctly…And yes, this is one you’ll need to sit down for.

Calling it part of a their plan to implement, “An Enhanced Support Model to Promote Mental and Behavioral Wellness among Students in the Avon Public Schools,” the Avon Board of Education recently voted to eliminate all social workers from that community’s prestigious public school system.

Gone are the four specially trained school social workers, a couple of whom have been providing critically important mental health services to Avon’s students for decades.

Apparently the social workers’ vital work will fall to others to perform.

However, thanks to the quick action of an outraged group of concerned parents and other citizens, Avon’s Board of Education is being forced to hold a special public hearing on July 1, 2015 at 7 pm in the Avon High School Auditorium in order, “To consider a citizen’s petition to reinstate the position of social works in the Avon School system.”

Avon was once considered a model community for attending to all of various complex and inter-connected aspects of a child’s development and education.

In fact, just two years ago, Avon was leading the charge in the post Newtown, Connecticut Sandy Hook Elementary  School Massacre.

At the time, Avon’s new “Futures Report,” called for placing even greater emphasis on student mental health through an “Increased focus on early intervening services” and the use of a “multi-tiered intervention model” to ensure that all students were getting the support and services they needed and deserved.

But that was then and this is now and something terribly wrong has apparently occurred since then.

Just last December, Gary Mala, Avon’s Superintendent of Schools was providing the members of the Avon Board of Education with his monthly update, including the latest news about the progress of the school system’s new Wellness Curriculum.

As the minutes reveal, in response to a question from a Board of Education member, Superintendent Gary Mala,

“Added that it is also important to consider the mental health of our students and help staff learn to identify and refer students where needed.”

Then, as the December 3, 2014 minutes report,

“[Superintendent Mala] added there is no liability if the school fails to property identify those needs.”

In response to the discussion, Avon Board of Education member Ames Shea weighed in,

“Ms. Shea asked the Board to exercise caution; she stated we should not be the “board of everything.”  She does not want our school system to become a mental health resource.”

The minutes go on to report that Board of Education member Jeff Bernetich agreed.

Six months later, in a fancy PowerPoint presentation, Avon’s Director of Pupil Personnel laid out the administration’s new plan to “enhance” mental health services by doing away with the school social workers altogether.

Superintendent Mala’s team explained that although their plan eliminates two social workers at Avon High School, it “Casts a larger net in order to identify students who may be experiencing academic or emotional distress as the result of changes being instituted at Avon High School.”

In a logic that is more than a bit hard to follow, their plan added that eliminating all four social works in the Avon School System, the new system addressed the need for, “Greater demands for accountability and documentation of student progress.”

The Avon plan also, “Provides more comprehensive approaches to intervening with students across all district schools” and ensures for the, “Ability to intervene with students earlier in the process and to provide support within least restrictive settings.”

Finally, the plan, they say, is needed, “To respond to increased demands for Functional Behavioral Assessments, Ecological Assessments, and Behavior Support Plans.”

Those familiar with the Common Core and the Common Core Testing scheme will notice that the language and rationale seems eerily similar to the jargon being used by the education reform industry.

With apparently little to no substantive discussion, the Avon Board of Education took the advice and voted to do away with the school system’s social workers.

The list of questions as to why such an action would be taken seems endless.

It was just a few months ago that the Sandy Hook Advisory Commission submitted their final report.

Reacting to both the unspeakable horror of the Sandy Hook Massacre and the broader recognition about the need to improve mental health services, the Sandy Hook Commission laid out a detailed set of recommendations that are diametrically opposed to the actions taken by Avon’s Board of Education.

While Avon voted to remove the number and breadth of professionally trained mental health experts, the Sandy Hook Commission recommended that there was an urgent need to dramatically increase the availability of mental health services, especially for Connecticut’ children.

The Sandy Hook Advisory Commission explained;

“Schools are essential players…both as sites for prevention, early intervention and the delivery of services and as learning communities where social and emotional health come to be seen as essential to the process of educating young members of a just and caring society.”  (Page 82-83)

The Commission observed;

“Children exist within multiple social systems, and their needs can’t be isolated from those of the systems in which they function.  Schools in particular must be understood as integral to their communities; what happens at school directly impacts the surrounding community and what happens in the community affects its schools and their occupants.  Schools must play a critical role in fostering health child development and healthy communities.”  (Page 99)

And the Commission added;

“Schools should work with all providers to enhance community resources and augment services available in schools.  For many children schools offer the only real possibility for accessing services, so districts should increase the availability of school guidance counselors, social workers, psychologists and other school health and behavioral health professionals during and after school…”

The Sandy Hook Commission’s list of recommendations about the importance of school-based mental health services go on and on and on.

Hopefully Avon’s Superintendent of Schools and the members of the Avon Board of Education will listen very carefully to the citizens who speak out at the special Board of Education hearing on July 1, 2015 and will then take immediate action to reinstate the social workers that they just dumped.

And if Avon’s elected and appointed officials fail to act, then they should step aside and allow truly dedicated people to take their positions.

Insurance Executives Win; Citizens and Mental Health Advocates Lose

At the end of May, Governor Dannel “Dan” Malloy stunned healthcare advocates when he vetoed an important bill that would have required insurance companies to provide data about how much substance abuse coverage and related mental health care they are actually providing Connecticut residents.

The legislation was a product of a major study conducted the Connecticut General Assembly’s bi-partisan Program Review and Investigation Committee.  While insurance companies already report some utilization data, the Committee’s investigation determined that companies were not providing the information necessary for policymakers to determine whether patients were getting the substance abuse treatment and mental health services that they need and deserve.

Considering that the cost of appropriate substance abuse treatment and mental health services is far cheaper and more effective than dealing with the resulting emergency room visits, potential suicide attempts, violence and incarceration that can result from inadequate treatment, the bill was extremely appropriate.

With strong support from Democrats and Republicans, the legislation passed the Program Review and Investigation Committee 11 – 0, the Insurance Committee 15 – 2, the Connecticut State Senate 35 – 0 and the Connecticut House of Representatives by a vote of 143 – 0.

But then, in an apparent gift to insurance executives, who have been extremely generous to Malloy’s political fundraising efforts, the Governor reversed course and vetoed the bill.

Now, according to House Speaker Brendan Sharkey, the Democratic-controlled legislature will not override any of Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s vetoes, including the important substance abuse and mental health bill.

The General Assembly’s decision to simply give in and give up the fight to ensure a better and fairer health insurance system for Connecticut is a sad one.

As the CT Mirror reported at the time Malloy vetoed the bill,

“Gov. Dannel P. Malloy has vetoed a bill opposed by the insurance industry that would have required carriers to report information about the substance abuse treatment they have covered and their networks of mental health and substance abuse treatment providers.

Malloy said he supported the objective of the measure, which was intended to increase the amount of information available about substance abuse treatment and coverage, but was concerned that it could lead to inaccurate information being gathered.

Malloy took issue with that last requirement, saying in his veto message that it’s unusual for state law to require private entities to “report on activities to achieve public policy objectives,” and that he worried about the precedent it could set.

In defense of his veto, Governor Malloy actually said that he is opposed to requiring private entities to “report on activities to achieve public policy objectives.”

Malloy’s statement is absolutely absurd considering that private businesses that are engaged in public purposes MUST regularly “report on activities to achieve public policy objectives.”  Just ask the electric companies, the water companies and all the other private entities that serve the public good.

Insurance companies that provide health insurance to Connecticut residents must be held accountable for their actions and the bill Malloy vetoed would have done exactly that.

As Jeffrey Walter, the president of the Rushford Center and an expert on substance abuse treatment, explained in his testimony in favor of the legislation,

“The legislation might not be necessary were it not for the fact that behavioral health is treated differently by the insurance industry than virtually any other health care specialty….care for psychiatric and substance use disorders [are] denied at a rate that far surpasses my other part of the health care system.”

The Connecticut Psychological Association added,

“The provisions…increase transparency related to coverage decisions and complaints, which will facilitate evaluation of the review process, including compliance with federal parity law, which requires equal treatment of medical and behavioral health providers and conditions, as well as network adequacy.”

And Connecticut’s State Health Care Advocate, Victoria Veltri, explained,

“Expanding the data that insurers report to the Insurance Department concerning member utilization of services for the treatment of substance use, co-occurring and mental health disorders will provide additional needed clarity to the issues concerning consumer access to treatment for these conditions.”

Malloy was wrong to veto this bill and the Connecticut General Assembly is failing to do its job by refusing to even consider overriding Malloy’s veto.

You can read more about the bill in this CT Mirror story: http://ctmirror.org/malloy-vetos-substance-abuse-treatment-bill-opposed-by-insurance-industry/?hvid=4ILvLG

Paid for by Pelto 2014, Ted Strelez, Treasurer, Christine Ladd, Deputy Treasurer, Approved by Jonathan Pelto

Hold on…Now let me see if I understand what you are saying….

Pick up any newspaper and you are bound to see at least one story about the impact of budget cuts and another about how state governments are giving money away to private companies in an attempt to convince them to create or retain jobs.

It is quite a commentary about our times.  A lack of adequate funding means people who work for schools, hospitals and nonprofit providers of human services are or will be losing their jobs, while taxpayer continue to provide the money that is being used to try and persuade businesses to pledge that they will create or keep private sector jobs.

True, it may not be the notoriety that we want, but you certainly can’t say that Connecticut hasn’t become the epitome of this paradox.

For example, earlier this week, Wait What? readers were provided an opportunity to read two posts, one entitled Has it come to this…? and another entitled And while cutting essential services, Malloy gives $100,000 to a Stamford Brewery.

The first post reported on a recent Hartford Courant commentary piece by a father lamenting Governor Malloy’s cut to essential programs that help Connecticut’s developmentally disabled residents while the second was about the Governor’s visit to a brew pub in Stamford to celebrate a $100,000 taxpayer-funded grant that the Malloy Administration was giving to help the brew pub expand.

The two stories served to enlighten readers about the reality of our times or the juxtaposition between an era where we are cutting vital services while providing private companies with what some would call economic development incentives and what others would refer to as corporate welfare.

What I failed to report was that, in addition to the brew pub, Governor Malloy and his Commissioner of the Department of Economic and Community Development (DECD), Catherine Smith, were actually visiting three other companies around the state that day.  All four of the companies were receiving funds thanks to the State’s Small Business Express Program (EXP).

Over the past eighteen months, the Small Business Express Program has given out more than $80 million.  According to state officials, the program has helped “create and retain more than 7,600 jobs.” The Legislature will soon be voting to give the Governor an additional $60 million for this program.

In addition to Stamford’s Half Full Brewery, Malloy was visiting Atlantic Canvas and Awning (a company that received a loan of $50,000 and a matching grant of $10,000); Automotive Core Recycling (a company that recycles and sells catalytic converters and other auto parts and received a $250,000 loan) and Katalina’s (a cup cake bakery that received a loan of $30,000 to add equipment and furnishings to their new retail shop).

According to the Department of Economic and Community Development, the $50,000 loan and $10,000 grant “support the creation of three new jobs and retained four,” the $250,000 loan translated into one new position and retained 8 jobs, while the $30,000 loan to the bakery “created one full time job and retained two full time and two part time jobs.”

The Governor’s press release that day announced that the Small Business Express Program has already created or retained more than 1400 jobs in 2013.

Meanwhile that distraught and frustrated father, along with the others who care for Connecticut’s developmentally disabled, try to cope with Governor Malloy’s $6 million cut to employment and day service programs.

Actually, that $6 million cut was part of a much bigger list of cuts Governor Malloy ordered last November 28, 2012.   That day, back in November, Governor Malloy announced $170 million in budget rescissions.

The press release didn’t actually quote Governor Malloy. Instead the task of explaining the cuts was left to Ben Barnes, Malloy’s budget director.  Barnes wrote, “Many of these cuts are very difficult to make, especially now when so many residents continue to struggle in a tough economy, But as painful as they are, cuts are necessary to keep this year’s budget in balance.  State government needs to live within its means.”

The November list included a wide variety of reductions including a $53,000 cut to the Division of Criminal Justice’s Shooting Task Force; a $200,000 cut to the Jobs First Employment Service Program, a $488,000 cut to the state’s Environmental Quality Program; a $335,000 cut to the Department of Health’s Community Health Services Program and $41,000 cut to their Genetic Diseases Program; a $433,000 cut to the state’s Community Mental Health  Centers, a $2.3 million cut to home care services that keep people out of more expensive nursing homes and hospitals and the list goes on and on.

More recently, the state budget plan that Governor Malloy proposed a month ago continued those cuts.  In fact, his new budget makes even deeper cuts to a variety of vital and essential services.

So how is it possible that a Governor would be instituting record budget cuts while giving away record amounts of taxpayer funds to private businesses?

Truth be told, it is the difference between how the State operating budget works compared to the way the State Capital or Bond budget functions.

Even in the desperate times, the Capital budget continues to pump out cash.

The State’s operating budget is paid for with tax dollars.  The State’s Capital Budget is funded via the state’s credit card.

Because we are borrowing the money and then paying the amount (plus interest) back over twenty years, the argument is that cutting the Capital Budget won’t help to balance this year’s operating budget.  This year’s operating budget is still facing a $135 million plus deficit despite the terrible cuts instituted by the Governor and the additional cuts approved by the General Assembly.

Although Connecticut already has the highest per capita debt burden in the nation, since the word “deficit” applies to the operating budget and not the Capital Budget, we end up with a situation in which vital services are cut at the same time money is being handed out.

In fact, if Governor Malloy gets his way, we’ll see more cuts to essential services and more layoffs of hospital and human service workers in the coming months, and at the same time, the General Assembly will be allocating even more money for the Governor to hand out to the private sector.

Quick! Look Busy, Set up a Sandy Hook Advisory Commission to Study the Problem

A couple of hours ago, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy announced that he was creating the Sandy Hook Advisory Commission, a committee of 15 members who will “explore relevant issues of gun control, school security and mental health.”

The governor named Hamden Mayor Scott Jackson to lead the committee and instructed him that an initial round of recommendations are expected no later than March 15, which would give the Governor and the General Assembly about three months to decide whether to turn any of the ideas into law before the end of the 2013 legislative session.

According to a story posted on the CTMirror website, “No other commission members were identified, but Malloy said they will include experts in education, mental health, law enforcement and emergency response. All are outside state government, but Michael Lawlor, the governor’s adviser on criminal justice issues, will staff the panel…Lawlor said the governor’s office has identified and invited the other commission members, but it is awaiting acceptances by the entire group.”

Meanwhile, yesterday, Connecticut’s Healthcare Advocate Victoria Veltri released a comprehensive report on access to mental health and substance abuse treatment services in Connecticut.

The 60 page report, entitled, “Findings and Recommendations: Access to Mental Health and Substance Use Services” began with the observation that;

“Eight years after the Report of the Governor’s Blue Ribbon Commission on Mental Health, residents of Connecticut still face significant barriers to access to preventive and treatment services for mental health and substance use disorder in Connecticut. The tragedy of the mass shootings in Newtown, CT. on December 14, 2012, brings the need for such an effort into sharp relief. Health insurance coverage is not a promise of coverage. Multiple state agencies with varying eligibility requirements provide services and/or oversight for residents struggling with mental health and substance use disorders, but these efforts are not well understood or coordinated as part of an overall vision for the state.”

Let’s be clear.  There is nothing wrong with a Governor bringing together a group of “experts” to “explore relevant issues of gun control, school security and mental health.”

But the juxtaposition between yesterday and today could not have been starker.

Last year, as part of Governor Malloy’s $1.5 billion tax package, income tax rates went up for Connecticut’s middle-income families, but they were frozen and did not go up for those making more than $1 million dollars – despite the huge windfall the wealthy had been receiving for a decade as a result of the Bush-Obama tax cuts.

The state’s overall lack of sufficient revenues translated into a $415 million budget deficit in this year’s budget.

As part of his effort to balance the state budget in November, Governor Malloy made the maximum allowable budget rescissions (cuts) to a number of Connecticut’s important mental health programs including Mental Health Center (a cut of $433,286), Grants for Substance Abuse Services (a cut of $1,246,477), grants for Mental Health Services (a cut of $3,823,794) and funding for Employment Opportunities for those with mental illness or substance abuse problems (a cut of $523,504).

Then a few weeks later, Malloy’s budget deficit mitigation bill, that passed the State House and State Senate, cut an additional $578,387 in funding for staff at the Department of Mental Health and Abdication Services, cut $739,682 for housing programs for clients served by the mental health agency and cut 846,304 in other managed services for those with mental health or addiction problems.

And that doesn’t even count the nearly $3 million in cuts to housing and care for children in foster care, for children in residential facilities and for individualized support programs for families with troubled children.

Had Malloy and the Democrats simply stopped coddling the super-rich and, in turn, required them to start paying their fair share in income taxes starting January 1, 2013, none of those cuts would have been necessary.

But here we are, first came cuts to vital services and now the announcement of a new Sandy Hook Commission.

Let’s reiterate the point.  Any and all efforts to develop and promote better public policies are a good idea, but the report that Connecticut’s Health Care Advocate released yesterday reiterated that there experts already know that there are proven strategies to increase support for persons with mental illness but that this governor (and previous governors) have failed to implement those vital programs.

As reported in yesterday’s CTNewsjunkie story about the report, parents at a recent public hearing on access to mental health issues “told heartbreaking stories…about their attempts to get services for their children. Their testimony showed that the state ‘has a fractured and fragmented method of delivering care that needs to be coordinated and more data driven in terms of cost effectiveness.’”

In fact, the Connecticut Healthcare Advocate’s report included eight major recommendations about techniques to improve Connecticut’s mental health and substance use systems.  Those recommendations include;

1.  Connecticut should adopt an overall vision for health that integrates and coordinates access to effective, timely, high quality and affordable mental health and substance use prevention and treatment services into overall healthcare

2.  Connecticut’s mental health and substance use delivery system should be synchronized by n coordinating entity

3.  Prevention, awareness and screening programs must be enhanced

4.  Residents covered by self-funded and fully-insured plans should have access to community-based services

5.  Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity must be enforced

6.  The recommendations of the 12/18/12 Program Review and Investigation Committee report should be adopted in full

7.  State programs must be evaluated for cost effectiveness, and should be streamlined

8.  Cost shifting to the state should be evaluated and minimized.

As Connecticut’s Healthcare Advocate Veltri explained, “Now, more than ever, action is required to address the obstacles to access to treatment for and prevention of mental health and substance use conditions. Connecticut lacks an overall vision of delivery services to all of our residents.”

When one looks back over the past two days, it seems the single most important observation and recommendation went unsaid.

While a Sandy Hook Commission may make political sense and can even add to the policy debate, the sad truth is that Governor Malloy and the Legislature failed to put action behind their words when they made mental health services a target for deep and debilitating cuts.

For more background on this issue, the Connecticut Health Care Advocate’s Report can be found here:  http://www.ct.gov/oha/lib/oha/documents/publications/report_of_findings_and_recs_on_oha_hearing_1-2-13.pdf

CTNewsjunkie’s article on the report here: http://www.ctnewsjunkie.com/ctnj.php/archives/entry/report_calls_for_action_on_fractured_mental_health_system/

And the latest from the Governor on his new Sandy Hook Commission is up on CTMirror, here:  http://ctmirror.org/story/18620/malloy-outlines-broad-approach-newtown-shooting