By Tanner Hall


County leaders are expected in the coming weeks to advocate to state lawmakers on behalf of mental healthcare providers.

Shelly Foreman, a community relations representative with Vaya Health, was scheduled to speak with commissioners during Tuesday’s work session about budget cuts proposed by the General Assembly. The discussion was postponed due to new, escalating figures coming from Raleigh.

“This is a topic that’s evolving daily,” said commissioners’ Chairman Brian McMahan, who serves as Jackson’s representative on Vaya’s county advisory board. “The projected cut to the budget for Vaya last week was $6.3 million. That number as of this week is up to $9 million.”

Vaya manages publicly funded services for mental health, substance use and intellectual/developmental disabilities in 23 Western North Carolina counties, including Jackson. Founded in 1972 in Sylva with the name Smoky Mountain Center, Vaya moved its administrative headquarters to Asheville in 2015.

“Vaya really doesn’t have an understanding of where or how those numbers are being derived,” McMahan said. “Somehow, somewhere, somebody has put together a formula that determines what those cuts are. Nobody has been able to figure out how it was put together.”

Other mental health service providers across the state are facing similar funding slashes. Commissioners said they seem to be based on population.

“When we get to the level of cuts they’re talking about at this point, we’re talking about cutting services that are being provided currently,” McMahan said. “It will have a huge impact on the area and the citizens that rely on those services.”

Vaya is putting together a list of potential impacts should the $9 million decrease become final. With that information in hand, McMahan said, commissioners could begin making phone calls to legislators.

Under the previously proposed $6.3 million budget cut, local initiatives such as crisis walk-in services and services at the Behavioral Health Urgent Care centers in Buncombe and Haywood counties could face elimination, Vaya representatives said.

During the last four years, the General Assembly has reduced public funding for the agency by $48 million. Additionally, the Senate has proposed to shrink its funding by $12.7 million over the next two years.

“We know the folks in our region, and we’ve got some support here locally, but it might be that we need to make a phone call to another area of our state to advocate on behalf of our citizens who use these services,” McMahan told commissioners.