Louisiana senators Wednesday told state health officials to go back to the drawing board and find other money for budget cuts rather than eliminating a program that helps thousands of children and teenagers with mental health issues.

In order to balance this year's state budget, the Edwards administration began the process of closing the Medicaid program that helps children learn to deal with anger management issues and other mental health issues. About 47,000 children were served in 2016.

Closing the Psychosocial Rehabilitation program for youth would have saved about $2.2 million. The federal government sent an additional $3.6 million to help pay the psychologists and other care providers in the program.

“I can’t do this to kids. We are hurting the least of us,” said state Sen. Jay Luneau, D-Alexandria. “For political reasons a lot of people drew lines in the sand without any rationale. We’ve got to do better.”

“I can’t see how we benefit from cuts to programs like this,” said Houma Republican Sen. Norby Chabert.

In a rare action, the Senate Health and Welfare Committee unanimously rejected the emergency regulation that would have ended the mental health treatment services on April 1.

“This is truly democracy,” Health Committee Chairman Fred Mills, R-Parks, told the audience of parents and providers who crowded the hearing to argue against the eliminating the program. Applause broke out when Mills announced the decision to reject.

After the vote, Jeff Reynolds, the Louisiana Department of Health’s undersecretary in charge of finances, said he has no clue where he can cut.

“All the alternatives are ugly,” he said. “I’m banging my head against the wall.”

He still needs to find $8.1 million in service cuts before the fiscal year ends on June 30. And with the Senate committee’s vote, he’ll now have to find $2.2 million more.

Reynolds said legislators tied his hands by dictating what programs couldn’t be touched when ordering the department to cut its spending by $41 million during the February special session to rebalance the state budget.

Commissioner of Administration Jay Dardenne said neither the governor nor the Louisiana Department of Health wanted to eliminate the youth program. But the Legislature chose to use only $99 million – or 83 percent of Gov. John Bel Edwards had sought – of the state’s savings account to close a $304 million deficit before the end of this fiscal year on June 30. Called the “rainy day” fund, money is put aside each year for use during down economic times and House Republicans had refused to tap more.

“Had the ‘rainy day’ fund been utilized in its entirety, we would not be here today,” Dardenne told the Senate panel.

Additionally, legislators ordered the Louisiana Department of Health not to cut waivers for home-based care or payments to the private companies running public hospitals or to take much money from rural hospitals. The inability to spread the budget reductions across a bigger universe of healthcare spending meant LDH had little choice but eliminate programs, such as the one providing mental health services to youth, he said.

“When you continue to cut and cut and cut and cut as we have … you get to a point where you are crippling the recipient of those funds,” Dardenne said. “You ensure mediocrity at best.”

Follow Mark Ballard on Twitter, @MarkBallardCnb.