Berkeley Department of Health Services braces for deficit

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In light of a projected $12.5 million deficit for the upcoming fiscal year, the city of Berkeley's Department of Health Services, like most departments in the city, will shoulder extensive losses to its staff and community services.

The department faces an estimated shortfall of $2.7 million in fiscal year 2012 and an additional $787,000 in fiscal year 2013, as outlined by department director Beth Meyerson at a Berkeley City Council special session on March 22.

The fiscal year 2012 deficit, at about 10 percent of the department's overall budget, is attributed to decreasing city revenue and depleting external funding coupled with rising health care and insurance costs.

"The easy cuts have already been made the last couple of years," City Manager Phil Kamlarz said at the meeting. "We have to figure out how we do work differently because of the funding source and because of how do we provide important service to the folks most in need."

The department has based its projected losses on Gov. Jerry Brown's $12.5 billion budget plan and President Barack Obama's proposed 7.5 percent reduction to city programs, both reflecting a "best case scenario." The department, like others, could face federal cuts of up to 62 percent for grants including those for emergency preparedness and family planning, in addition to decreased state support for mental health services.

The department is already facing a $400,000 biennial budget cut from the city that will affect special programs with no other source of funding, including those for homeless outreach and noise ordinance enforcement.

"(It's like) amputating your leg with no anesthetic to save your life," said Mayor Tom Bates at the meeting. "The body may survive, but the cuts will have a huge impact."

A marked decrease in realignment funds, generated through sales tax and vehicle license fees, and payments ­for disputed Medi-Cal billed services have also contributed to the projected deficit.

As a result, department staff will shoulder a large portion of the impact. Of the 96 citywide positions slated for termination in the next two fiscal years, the department will contribute 24.4 full-time positions, contributing to a 23 percent reduction in staff, according to Meyerson.

Though some council members voiced opposition against potential staff layoffs, Councilmember Susan Wengraf was reluctant to completely forgo the option in considering the implications for the "greater good."

"That's the real challenge," she said at the meeting.

Other potential impacts to the Mental Health Division include reductions in intensive care services but increases in crisis and recovery services for the community. The Public Health Division may reduce clinic operations to three days a week, narrow eligibility for case management and decrease its community outreach.

"I kind of feel like we're doing triage ... there are some kids we won't inoculate, blood pressures we won't control and ultimately some of those people will die, at least prematurely," Councilmember Laurie Capitelli said at the meeting.

Meyerson said the loss of employees would undoubtedly impact services offered, but added that the department is also diversifying its cost-saving measures. For example, the department ­expects to save $100,000 by enrolling uninsured clients in the Prescription Assistance Program offered by pharmaceutical companies to receive free medication.

The department will also cut costs by redistributing staff and services. Recently, the department was able to use state funds granted through Proposition 63 to avoid terminating the position of a registered nurse.


Yousur Alhlou covers city government. Contact her at [email protected]

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