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Fiery Tedesco Fights For Mental Health Funds At Lodi Hearing

Michele Hart-Loughlin of Old Tappan stands in support of Bergen County Executive Jim Tedesco's impassioned defense to retain state funding for mental health services. Photo Credit: Lorraine Ash
Bergen County Executive Jim Tedesco before two stacks of data: the difference between them represents what the county stands to lose in mental health services. With him are Freeholder Director Tracy Zur and Undersheriff Joseph Hornyak. Photo Credit: Lorraine Ash
Hundreds stood as Bergen County Executive Jim Tedesco defended retaining state funding for mental health services here. Photo Credit: Lorraine Ash

LODI, N.J. — Hundreds wearing green “Bergen County Proud To Be Stigma Free” T-shirts stood in solidarity as Bergen County Executive Jim Tedesco defended mental health funding at an Assembly Budget Committee Hearing at Felician University in Lodi Wednesday.

Under a new fee-for-service model of funding proposed by Gov. Christie, community mental health agencies in Bergen would lose $6 million in funding.

Tedesco pointed to two stacks of paper in front of him — one tall, one significantly shorter.

He put his hand on the tall one.

“The stack of data on this table in front of me is filled with 33,000 lines of entry of services that our mental health centers rendered in Bergen County,” he said.

The shorter one showed the services that would be left.

“As a former fire chief, I know that mental providers are like fire departments,” he said.

“When you need them, you really need them whether you’re working class poor, middle class or rich. Without them, your house burns down.”

Calling himself a mental health advocate, Tedesco railed against the cuts.

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He said mental illness is not a choice and mental health treatment helps county residents get from one day to the next.

Freeholder Director Tracy Zur continued the volley with math.

In Bergen, she said, 178,000 adults and 19,000 children deal with mental illness.

“For the past 40 years, the state has provided reimbursement funding to offset the cost of providing mental health care for those who could not pay the full cost,” she said.

“Those funds have been used to cover costs that Medicaid still doesn’t cover: it’s only covering 23 percent.”

Under the fee-for-service model, reimbursement funding would evaporate.

She called the hardship that would ensue “unacceptable and unnecessary” and added that the shift does not make monetary sense.

Medication monitoring in the community costs $208 a year, she said, while an inpatient bed costs $250,000 a year.

The contingent from the county, which also included Undersheriff Joseph Hornyak, were one of 87 parties scheduled to speak before the committee.

The hearing was expected to go well into the night.

It was the third of three such public hearings.

Assemblyman Gary Schaer, committee chair, said the committee next will have 16 meetings with state agencies and commissions to further understand the budget from the governor.

Schaer congratulated Tedesco on Bergen County becoming the first community in the country to end chronic homeless — a reality Tedesco had linked to mental illness.

“We will try to find $6 million,” Schaer said.

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