By Jennifer Grimes

Triplicate staff writer

Del Norte Countys Mental Health Department will be 21 positions short for the next three or four years starting today.

Nine people, including six front-line Mental Health specialists, one Mental Health program aide, one clinician and one administrative services officer will be leaving their desks empty today. The other 12 positions were already vacant, but now wont be filled.

The reason for the layoffs is a $1.2 million debt in the departments budget. And after everything expendable was cut, jobs were the only thing left.

The debt surprised administrators in both the Mental Health Department and Del Norte County last August.

Ive been doing this for 20 years and Ive never had to do anything like this before, said Mick Miller, the director of the Mental Health Department.

Overcharging Medi-Cal for serving low-income patients, then having to pay them back at the end of the year is one of the culprits, according to county auditor Christie Babich.

When Medi-Cal patients come to the department for therapy, the department then bills Medi-Cal a certain rate per minute, depending on the type of therapy.

Many counties charge more than it costs to keep cash flow up during the year, Miller said.

Then hopefully, by the end of the year, theres enough of other revenues to pay the balance back, Miller added.

In previous years, we had enough at the end of the year, he said.

But according to Babich, the paybacks Medi-Cal is asking for this year are actually to cover overcharges from 1999. Which means the Mental Health Department is facing another two years of past overcharges, according to Babich.

So now, were reducing charges to match actual costs, so theres no payback, said Miller.

Miller said he doesnt know what the overcharges were, but said there was no specific percentage or dollar amount added on to the Medi-Cal billing.

The Mental Health Department is one of the countys top three spenders. Last year, $5.7 million flowed through its accounts. And even with the budget problems it faces this year, Miller expects to spend $5.5 million.

It will take the department about four years to pay back the 1999 overcharges due. To do that Miller and Babich will have to continue cutting the Mental Health Department budget.

The four-year plan to pay back Medi-Cal set out by the county requires Mental Health to pay $446,000 this January and $300,000 next year and $100,000 in 2004. If budget problems continue, and they are expected to, the Mental Health Department will be down to a $4.7 million budget even though the cost of providing the same services are expected to rise.

Inevitably, service to patients will be affected, according to Miller.

To help solve the departments budget problems and keep up the level of service to patients, Miller said he has been working with Dennis Conger of Rural Human Services.

The two men have found grants available to pay for some of the patient case managers the department is now without.

A fiscal manager, hired by the county, will also be placed at the department to develop a tracking system for cash coming in and out and to put full-time focus on solving the budget problem.

It cant come too soon for me. Send help! Miller said.

Miller also said the nine laid-off workers from his department have found jobs at RHS or through RHS job-placement program.