Thom Parsons
Last week delivered devastating news for drug users and the mentally ill around the state. It was a double-pronged stab at the state budget when legislators slashed $112 million from the state budget. Chief among their cuts was the Oregon Health Plan, which had all addiction-recovery and mental health benefits gouged from its services. That cut will leave tens of thousands of recovering drug addicts and mentally ill Oregonians without access to medicines and doctors.

Next, the legislators left the state indigent defense system gasping for air. The program previously provided attorneys for low-income defendants; mainly persons accused of drug crimes.

With the new governor and legislators moving into their offices, last Wednesday more than 500 activists crowded the steps at the State Capitol to protest budget cuts. That group included addiction-recovery professionals as well as former and recovering substance abusers.

The Recovery Association Project, which organized the protest, explained the cuts were shortsighted. They predict the rollback of services, in turn, will bring on increases in crime, infectious disease and drug demand.

Mark Schorr, from Cascadia Behavioral Healthcare, anticipates that one quarter of Cascadia's Portland clients will become ineligible for treatment when the changes take effect. "Things are the grimmest I've seen," he says. Schorr explains that hospital emergency rooms will take on new burdens when mentally ill and drug-addicted patients find themselves without medication or treatment. "Our program is reimbursed $100 per month for each [OHP] patient we have," Schorr explains, "but when someone is hospitalized for psychiatric treatment, it costs $700 a day."

Further, those with untreated mental illnesses will end up in jail with increasing frequency; jailing is, again, much more expensive than state-subsidized treatment. "The system can't tolerate this," says David Eisen, director of the Portland Alternative Health Center. "How many people will they have to see crash and burn before they change it?" The center provides mental health and drug treatment services. Eisen estimates they'll have to turn away 1000 clients within the year.

"This is only one piece of the pie," he says. There are other health care costs, and there are criminal costs as well as threats to public safety." When addiction treatment ends, recovering drug users will almost inevitably return to their old habits, Eisen says. "There will be more theft so that people can feed their dragons."

The cuts to the Oregon Health Plan are estimated to affect 50 percent of clients in drug and alcohol recovery programs throughout Portland. They also could force the closures of half the city's addiction treatment services.

In one particular case, unless a recovering heroin addict can somehow scrounge up $250 a month, the end of coverage for methadone will leave almost 4000 of the state's recovering heroin addicts without assistance--half of those people live in Portland.

This dismal news about health care services was accompanied last week with cuts to legal services for indigents. Despite a recent $5 million grant from the State Emergency Board, the state's indigent defense service faces a $10 million budget shortfall. It was announced last week this lack of funding will require judges to stop appointing lawyers for some low-income defendants.

Beginning Monday, lawyers will not be appointed for those accused of some misdemeanors and probation violations. On March 1, public counsel will no longer be offered to defendants in felony property crime cases, as well as drug possession and distribution cases. To sidestep the constitutional concerns (the US Constitution requires a lawyer appointed for those persons who cannot afford one) prosecutions in these cases will be stopped until July, when the budget will be revisited.

Governor-elect Ted Kulongoski did no favors to low-income Oregonians when he introduced his recommended budget last Friday. His plan further mutilates the Oregon Health Plan, ending dental and some medical coverage for 370,000 clients and stripping funding from other social services in order to fill the estimated $2 billion gap in the state budget.

Kulongoski's proposal, in which he emphasizes the need for everybody to "make sacrifices," includes no tax increases--a move that was lauded by the Republican-controlled legislature.