Job-finding program on block

David Riley

State budget cuts will gut a program that helps hundreds of local people with severe mental illnesses learn job skills and get back into the work force, human service providers said Tuesday.

State officials plan to eliminate the $6.6 million Services for Employment and Education program, which serves about 2,000 people in Massachusetts, the agencies said.

That will slash job services for about 130 clients of the South Middlesex Opportunity Council, or SMOC, in MetroWest and Waltham, said Jeff Handler, the agency's director of behavioral health services.

"It's traumatic for everybody," he said.

Quincy-based Work Inc., one of the state's largest service providers for people with disabilities, will have to cut job programs for about 150 clients.

"It's a regressive public policy," President and CEO Jim Cassetta said. "This flies right in the face of the public policy statements that have been made by the administration."

Gov. Deval Patrick last week announced roughly $1 billion in budget cuts and spending controls to close a $1.4 billion budget deficit, according to the Associated Press. Service providers are dreading further cuts to Department of Mental Health programs.

Iris Carroll, director of Programs for People in Framingham, said Medicaid reimbursements for day treatment programs for mentally ill people also are at risk. That makes up about 70 percent of her agency's funding and would force it to close its doors to 108 clients, she said.

"We've already proved the value and absolute necessity of day treatment," Carroll said, recalling a similar cut under Gov. Mitt Romney that was ultimately reversed. "To have to prove it again seems outrageous."

Reducing Medicaid reimbursements for day treatment and other programs is under consideration, but still under review, said Jennifer Kritz, a spokeswoman for the Executive Office of Health and Human Services.

Cuts to the Services for Employment and Education program, however, are more final, she said. The state already sent notices to service providers that the program is being eliminated.

"We're working hard to minimize the impact on providers and our most vulnerable populations," Kritz said.

But service providers said the jobs program has been nationally recognized as a success in reintegrating mentally ill people into the workplace.

At SMOC, Handler said his agency's program helps people who generally have been in the Department of Mental Health system for some time, who may not have worked in years, to find and keep regular, competitive jobs.

"It's their job to get, keep and retain," he said. "It's their job to lose."

Staff help clients get education, acclimate to the work setting and provide other help to transition to employment, Handler said. Employment generally helps people who have struggled with mental illness to restore some normalcy to their lives and work independently in all types of positions, he said.

"People work two hours a week, they work 40 hours a week," Handler said. "People we never thought would work are able to find work and stick with it."

Cassetta said the program's elimination cuts one of the most vital tools to treating chronic mental illness - vocational training.

Many people with serious mental illnesses receive public assistance, but "once they get into a full-time job, dollar for dollar, those entitlements get reduced down to zero," he said.

"You're eliminating the only evidence-based practice ... ensuring those 2,000 people will either remain or go back on public assistance, which is going to cost the Commonwealth of Massachusetts," Cassetta said.

While Patrick vowed to protect the most vulnerable, Cassetta this cut fails to do so. He and other CEOs that handle Services for Employment and Education programs are pushing for its reversal. SMOC Director Jim Cuddy said the cut will make it harder for mentally ill people to adjust in their communities.

"It will stress out the system," Cuddy said.

Michael Weekes, president and CEO of the Massachusetts Council of Human Service Providers, said his group recognizes the human service sector has to share sacrifices to close the state's budget gap. But on their face, the cuts seem to disproportionately affect mental health programs, he said.

"When we've talked to some of our members who are working with clients and consumers, and they explain to us the human impact of those cuts, we realize they are fairly drastic cuts," Weekes said. "They're cuts to people who we don't know what their alternatives are going to be."

David Riley can be reached at 508-626-3919 or

The MetroWest Daily News