Health agency struggles to meet growing need amid funding cuts

Anna Duszkiewicz

Townhall II has seen spike in hotline calls

Townhall II, a nonprofit agency that provides medical services and counseling for the uninsured, is feeling the effects of a sluggish economy. The agency is increasingly relying on volunteers as it struggles to operate under staff and funding cuts and an increased demand for its services.

Deborah Neuhart, Townhall II’s emergency services manager, said a lot of the state and federal grants the agency relies on have been cut in the past year. So far this year, the agency’s budget has been cut by 6 percent.

“A lot of our programs are set up on these grants, and pulling out the money is like pulling the legs out from underneath us,” she said.

The agency has received stimulus money, but Neuhart said it’s a Band-Aid solution at best.

“The stimulus money only sustains you for 12 months,” she said. “So we can get a program running, but after 12 months there are no funds to continue it.”

Neuhart said the agency has had to cut staff that can’t be replaced, which makes it more difficult for the already small agency to keep operating.

The job cuts have forced remaining staff members to take on more responsibilities in an effort to patch up the holes.

“The need for our services has gone up tremendously, but we haven’t been able to bring on enough staff to meet it,” she said.

The agency has seen a spike in its crisis hotline calls. According to Townhall II phone records, the agency received 2,972 calls on its crisis line in 2007. In comparison, the agency took 2,091 calls in the first six months of 2009 alone.

Neuhart said this increase is not surprising, given the rising unemployment rate and stress it brings. A lot of the hotline calls come from people who want to stop using drugs or alcohol, Neuhart said.

“That’s definitely due to the economy and what’s going on,” she said. “People are under a tremendous amount of economic stress, and many slip into these behaviors because of that. This is a very volatile time during which we really need to be here to support the community, and it’s getting harder to fulfill all the things that need to be done.”

Townhall II has always relied heavily upon volunteers, with the majority of its medical clinic staff and hotline workers being unpaid. With the recent funding cuts, Neuhart said the agency needs this help more than ever before, but the volunteers, who are predominantly students, have dropped in numbers.

“Students who might have had time to volunteer before are now out working another job because the economy has affected them,” she said.

The agency has seen a sharp increase in the demand for all of its services, Neuhart said, including the crisis hotline and the free medical clinic. In the past, most of the patients at the free medical clinic were people who had never had insurance, Neuhart said. Now, the clinic is getting more patients who had medical benefits that were taken away by their employers.

Cathy Smathers, the medical clinic manager, said she has seen a large increase in patient volume since the economic downturn began. She said there has also been an increase in serious diseases that require patients to be referred out to specialists.

Neuhart said she thinks this trend is caused by patients putting off treatment because of financial issues.

Agencies such as Townhall II have slipped through the cracks in this economic crisis, but not without future consequences, Neuhart said.

“We can’t keep cutting services and money when people need them more than ever,” she said. “I think there’s going to be a real price to be paid for that at some point.”

Contact public affairs reporter Anna Duszkiewicz at [email protected].