Thursday, March 20, 2014

Public Sector Mental Health Continues to Be Squeezed Out Of Business

There was a story that shocked many in the local press earlier this week.  A local mental health center serving about 3,000 people in five counties shut its doors, leaving nobody to fill that void.  Although this appears to be scandalous news, it is really the logical progression of events that has been accurately described in E. Fuller Torrey's book.  It is the logical result of federal and state governments selectively rationing mental health benefits and closing down both inpatient bed and outpatient treatment capacity.

People always ask me: "Well - what should an ideal community mental health center look like?"  That is easy for me to answer because I was trained in community psychiatry, my first job out of residency was as the medical director of a community mental health center (CMHC) , and most of my career has been focused on helping patients who are largely in the public sector or certainly funded by those resources (Medicare/Medical Assistance).  I know exactly what an ideal CMHC needs to run and provide services to a broad range of people who do not have access to metropolitan style mental health services.  The vignettes provided in this article will also be addressed in the following points.

1.  The backbone of any CMHC should be services that focus on people with disabling mental illnesses and helping them live independently.  In the state where my original CMHC was located, statutes defined these conditions as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, schizoaffective disorder, major depression, and borderline personality disorder.  Adequate resources to treat those conditions generally means nursing and case management services that can meet with people in their homes and in the community.  In the teams that I worked with over 20 years ago we also had a vocational rehabilitation component and we worked with a number of physicians and specialists to address medical problems.  In any treatment setting where a CMHC is responsible for treating all public patients over a county wide catchment area, there is of necessity a legal component.  That is typically focused on involuntary treatment like civil commitment, court ordered medications, guardianships, conservatorships and protective placement.  Depending on the size of the county it can also involve competency assessments for ability to proceed to a court hearing based on concerns about mental illness.

2.  A community trained psychiatrist with medical skills.  The psychiatrist involved should enjoy working with people with people who have severe mental illnesses and medical comorbidity.  The legal component of services means that this person also needs to be comfortable doing the necessary exams and court testimony.  Medical and neurological illnesses need to be recognized and treated.  In CMHC settings the psychiatrist generally has much more information available about the health of his or her patients and they know how to interview people to get it.  When I was a medical director I also provided consultation to nursing homes, hospital consultations, and I would also travel to patient homes with case managers to provide consultation in that setting.  A lot depends on geography and distances to the other facilities needing consultation.

3.  Psychotherapists are critical to the functioning of a CMHC.  It has been interesting to watch the government and managed care companies ration psychotherapy services as much as they ration access to psychiatrists.  Correct me if I am wrong but as far as I know there are no HMOs or MCOs offering standard research based psychotherapies for psychiatric diagnoses.  At the max, usually 2 or 3 "crisis counseling" sessions.  In some cases a generic dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) group where many people with personality disorders end up because more specific therapy is unavailable.  CMHCs could be leaders in the implementation of computer based therapies, and the argument against that would be the lack of information technology departments.  The argument in support of this would be the fact that all counties across the state could share the same resource.  With today's tech, it would be  easily scalable to support anyone who needed it.  It would be inexpensive, effective and a good way to not dilute the psychotherapy resources of the clinic.  The other major change int he past two decades has been the focus on psychotherapy for people with severe mental illnesses.  That should be a critical part of any CMHC function.
4.  Addiction treatment - many communities have more resources available outside of the CMHC for assessment and treatment or referral of addictions.  The CMHC resources need to be more focused on the issue of co-occurring disorders and probably chronic pain and co-occurring disorders.  This would be another opportunity for networking all of the CMHCs in a state to assure a standard of assessment, share treatment resources, consult on specific cases and assure that there is no deterioration in prescriber standards with regard to potentially addictive medications.

5.  Crisis intervention services - 24/7 availability is necessary to provide acute evaluations but more importantly to resolve crises in patients who are well known to treatment teams.  Ity reduces the likelihood of unnecessary hospitalizations when there are staff person available who know the  person in crisis very well.  It is much more efficient and patient centered than sending a person to an emergency department and asking them to start over there with professionals who do not know them.

In the CMHC I worked in we had a catchment area of about 100,000 people spread over a large rural county.  We had a little over 100 patients in our community support programs for the severely disabled.  We we staffed by 1 psychiatrist, 2 psychologists, 4 social workers, 1 occupational therapist,  4 psychotherapists, 1 RN, and 2 LPNs.

The progression noted in this article is very clear and it has been replicated thousands of times across the US.  Shut down the large hospitals and tell people that treatment will be available in the communities near their homes.  Then shut down community treatment.  You will notice that officials make it seem like this is some kind of mystery.

“We’re so tight in [psychiatric] beds that any change in the delivery system impacts the whole system,” said Assistant Human Services Commissioner David Hartford. “The agencies need to reorganize to get people the care they need.”

Sorry Commissioner but in case you didn't notice we are not talking about beds anymore.  All of the people involved here were living at home in their own beds.  Agency "reorganization" is not an option.  There are no agencies anymore and one that was providing a valuable service was just shut down.  The problem here is very clear, cost shifting by managed care and defunding by the state.  Corporate welfare in the form of a carve-out for psychiatric services.  Keep in mind that when the comprehensive and humanistic approach to community treatment is lost, the only alternative is going in to a large managed care clinic where the appointments are scheduled every 15-20 minutes, the focus is on a prescription, and the only thing the doctor knows about what is going on is exchanged in that visit and recorded in the electronic health record.  That is frequently a symptom checklist. 

I guess there is always the psychiatric hospital of last resort - the county jail.  At least until the Sheriff's department goes broke.

George Dawson, MD, DFAPA

Christopher Snowbeck.  Crisis mental health provider closes; 5 counties scrambling.  St. Paul Pioneer Press.  March 18, 2014.

Chris Serres.  Minn. mental health center shuts down, stranding thousands.  Minneapolis StarTribune.  March 17, 2014.

Supplementary 1: I e-mailed the author of the first article Mr. Serres to inquire about the recently released state report that he refers to in the article and got no response.  As far as I can tell it may be the "Health Services in State Correctional Facilities Report" available at this site.  The concerning highlights include the fact that there are units that provide intensive nursing and mental health services.  About 33% (67,456) of all of the health services encounters with staff are for mental health purposes.  That translates to 28% of the offenders receiving mental health services.  At some point in their stay 32% are diagnosed with a "serious and persistent mental illness" as defined by state statute.  The report provides an interesting overview of how mental health services are provided in Minnesota prisons and the special problems involved in treating mentally ill offenders.

Supplementary 2: According  to Minnesota Statutes 2013, 245.462, subd. 20(c)(4)(i), states that a person has serious and persistent mental illness if he or she is an adult and “has a diagnosis of schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, major depression, schizoaffective disorder, or borderline personality disorder.”


  1. Exactly. This is why i wrote that it isn't the profession of psychiatry (although it has its issues) that has let those dealing with mental illness down, it is society. And, as far as government is concerned, I guess they don't have a large enough lobby.

  2. The only lobby that counts is the managed care industry. There is much political rhetoric about the AMA lobbying. Any physician knows that physician professional organizations and their lobbyists have produced hardly any results in terms of maintaining health care quality with successive reforms. They certainly have not produced any results favoring physicians in any way. We are at the point where the professional organizations appear to have given up. The AMA supports the Obama administrations ACO model which is essentially managed care. The APA supports "collaborative care" which is essentially managed care and a perfect model to marginalize psychiatry. Even the self professed advocates for the mentally ill like NAMI appear to be ineffective.

    Everyone seems to be mesmerized by the managed care buzzwords - "cost-effective", "accountability", "population based medicine", there is an entire list. Even the author of this newspaper article seems to think that the statements of the bureaucrats in this article means something. It just means another CMHC has been shut down.

  3. Another factor in this that is not talked about much is the growing clout of the private prison industry and the corruption it brings. The states aren't exactly saving money on the treatment of the mentally ill by closing down hospitals and CMHC's. All available statistics show that the severely mentally ill are ending up in prison in large numbers for minor crimes, where it costs way more to keep them than it would have to treat them.

    The private prisons are paid by the number of customers - I mean inmates - they have.

    Our government is starting to look as corrupt as that of any third world country.

    1. Thanks David - I found a report on the situation in Minnesota that provides a detailed look at the prison population and the mental health services they get including total costs and the growth of costs. There is some interesting data in terms of frequency of follow up and contact with mental health therapists and psychiatrists as well as the fact that there are no clear standards of care. There also appear to be segregated settings of varying intensity for the provision of mental health care. For example, one of the highest security prisons Oak Park Heights, has a 42 bed unit designated for the treatment of prisoners with mental illness. A substantial number of the incarcerated meet the state statute for severe and persistent mental illness - the same standard is used to determine eligibility for state supported case management services and to some extent commitments.

      I still can't find the report on the number of people who are rotating in and out of EDs, jails and psych units and have requested more help with that. I think the growth of that population will really show the scope of the problem, but in order to do so it will need to go back 20-25 years. Even in those days I was seeing plenty of people with mental illness who were being incarcerated on misdemeanor nuisance charges like trespassing.