The Department of Mental Health announced plans this week to eliminate 146 jobs at two state facilities as the agency struggles to close a $19.7 million budget gap in 2018. These cuts are the first wave in a total of 650 positions the agency said it will need to cut by June 30, 2018.

Central Mississippi Residential Center in Newton and East Mississippi State Hospital in Meridian will cut 72 positions and 74 positions, respectively. East Mississippi plans to consolidate its adolescent psychiatric services program with one at Mississippi State Hospital in Whitfield.

In addition, Central Mississippi will transition operation of its Footprints Adult Day Services program and its crisis stabilization unit to a private provider, Weems Community Health Center, based in Meridian. A representative for the Department said all current employees will have the opportunity to apply for positions through Weems.

The cuts to Central Mississippi Residential Center and East Mississippi State Hospital were first reported by the Newton County Appeal and the Meridian Star, respectively. Both state-run facilities provide behavioral health and nursing home services to residential and community residents.

Rep. Tom Miles, D-Forest, said he was concerned about the impact the cuts would have on the department and on the workers themselves.

“I’ve gotten phone calls since Thursday on this, from ladies and men crying about losing their jobs and how they’ve dedicated the last 15 years of their lives to this facility,” Miles said, speaking about the cuts at Central Mississippi Regional Facility.

“We warned people about this during the session, that this was going to happen. I don’t think realistically that some of the legislators in this body realize how these budget cuts are going to impact people’s lives.”

East Mississippi State Hospital is currently facing a $5 million cut to that facility alone, while Central Mississippi Residential Center has to close a $1.1 million hole. Six other facilities run by the Department of Mental Health are facing budget cuts between $1 million and $14 million.

House Appropriations Chair John Read, R-Gautier, acknowledged that cuts to the Department of Mental Health were not “pretty,” but said falling revenue projections left the Legislature in a tough position.

“I have personally started going up and asking (my constituents) four questions. Naturally, the question you ask the most — do you think we should raise taxes? Well, you’re not going to find anyone who doesn’t want their tax break,” Read said in a separate conversation about other cuts to the Department of Mental Health.

Although state agencies across the board felt the impact of declining revenues in fiscal year 2018, the Department of Mental Health has been hit especially hard, with a total of $14.4 million slashed from its general fund appropriation. In addition the agency said it will have $5.3 million in new expenses, for a total gap of $19.7 million.

The announcement that the Department of Mental Health plans to cut 650 jobs comes on the heels of confirmation Friday that the agency was forced to freeze the wait list for the intellectual and developmental disability waiver program. Like Footprints at Central Mississippi, the waiver program enables patients to receive treatment while living at home, avoiding placement in a facility.

Access to home-based services is particularly crucial for Mississippi’s Department of Mental Health. Last August, the U.S. Justice Department filed a complaint against the agency for “failing to provide adults with mental illness with necessary integrated, community-based mental health services.”

The Department of Mental Health, in the same budget impact letter that confirmed plans to eliminate 650 positions, said it was planning to shift the operation of some services to Community Mental Health Centers in addition to Weems.

But Miles said he’s skeptical these services will be up to their previous standards.

“I understand that the’re trying to fill in the gaps but this notion that they’re using, that everything is going to be okay is not — people are still going to lose jobs, and people are still going to lose services,” Miles said. “They’re sugarcoating it.”

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that the Department of Mental Health planned to layoff 650 people. While some layoffs will occur, many of those positions mentioned will also come from retirements, departures, and positions currently vacant.

Larrison Campbell is a Greenville native who reports on politics with an emphasis on public health. She received a bachelor’s from Wesleyan University and a master’s from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism.Larrison is a 2018 National Press Foundation fellow in public health, a 2019 Blue Cross Blue Shield Foundation of Massachusetts fellow in health care reporting and a 2019 Center for Health Journalism National Fellow.