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St. Lawrence County’s mental health transportation program threatened by funding cuts

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CANTON — With funding fast running out, the St. Lawrence County Community Development Program’s mental health transportation program has only until June to continue operating.

The program transports 80 county residents to community-based mental health programs. Recent changes in how Medicaid is administered in the state resulted in a drastic funding cut that may see an end to the more than 25-year-old program.

CDP Executive Director Norma S. Cary said an additional $150,000 is needed by June to keep the vans on the road.

Daughters of Charity Sister Donna M. Franklin, director of Catholic Charities for the Diocese of Ogdensburg, said if the transportation goes away, the people who depend on the services would be severely affected. Catholic Charities operates Seaway House, a mental health day program that gives members an opportunity to volunteer in the community.

“Any cut in any kind of transportation for anyone in this county is a very serious issue because of the lack of public transportation,” she said. “You’re talking about a very vulnerable population. Any cut there is a very serious and unjust move.”

Mrs. Cary said CDP transports 13 people per day to programs at Seaway House. Others go to the Step By Step drop-in center or to day programs at the St. Lawrence Psychiatric Center in Ogdensburg.

With the state making an effort to step up community-based mental health services, Mrs. Cary said, “More people will be community-based, so I think that it’s important that the services are available. But people need to get there.”

Ms. Franklin said Seaway House supports some minimal transportation services, but the organization is able to support only people who are staying with it for the day. People who attend multiple services per day need transportation assistance, she said.

“It’s a real attack on some of the most vulnerable people,” Ms. Franklin said. “In the north country, the one thing you do not cut is transportation.”

Besides removing transportation services for mental health clients, Mrs. Cary said, the funding cut could affect other aspects of the Community Development Program.

Transportation funding is spread out among the many services the program offers, Mrs. Cary said. The cut likely would mean that three full-time drivers and one part-timer would be laid off.

Programs like Head Start would end up taking on the full cost of transportation support services, Mrs. Cary said, including nearly $100,000 for mechanical maintenance and transportation, which could result in diminishing services across the board.

Mrs. Cary said if CDP has to close its garage, the program would have to contract with a local service station to keep its vans on the road. She said that would affect how quickly CDP can get broken vehicles back on the road.

“I’d like Medicaid to reverse their decision,” Mrs. Cary said.

Mrs. Cary has been working with representatives from the offices of state Sen. Patricia A. Ritchie, R-Heuvelton, and Assemblywoman Addie J. Russell, D-Theresa, on solutions to the issue with the state Department of Health.

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