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HELENA — The state's nursing home for the mentally ill in Lewistown is going to cut staff and move 15 patients to group homes elsewhere in the state by this fall since the Legislature cut the institution's next two-year budget by $1 million.

The Montana Mental Health Nursing Care Center, currently home to 90 residents of all ages, has plans to downsize its resident population to 75. The state says as many as 20 people could lose their jobs.

The superintendent of the facility said he expects fewer than 20 workers to actually be let go because the facility will eliminate open positions before it lays off workers.

"We really haven't identified anyone at this point," superintendent Ron Balas said. "But there will be a reduction in staffing, of course."

As for the residents, 15 people between the ages of 21 and 64 will be moved out of the institution throughout the summer and fall. They will likely be placed in new group homes opening in Billings and Great Falls, said Lou Thompson, bureau chief of state mental-health services in Helena.

Glendive, where the state will close its residential institution for the developmentally disabled, will also get a new group home and some of the Lewistown patients could be moved there, Thompson said.

Thompson said money — or the state's lack thereof — isn't the motivation behind Lewistown's downsizing, even though the smaller-sized group homes get much more federal funding than the larger institutions do.

"The reason for doing this is our desire to see people living in the least restrictive environment," Thompson said.

The 15 residents who are targeted to be moved into group homes have tried living in group home settings in the past, but all were returned to the institution in Lewistown, Thompson said.

The move should work this time around, though, because of the high level of structure and supervision that will be in place in the new group homes, she added. The state is still negotiating staff ratios and payment with the interested service providers.

Once the patients are moved out, one wing of the institution will be closed, Balas said, and the facility's unit for the most-severe patients will be incorporated into another, existing unit.

"We've been expecting this for some months," Balas said.

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