Sunday, January 21, 2018

My Opinion on Community Mental Health From 1989....

A friend of mine who also worked with me as an RN on an acute care psychiatric unit sent me this newspaper clip from 1989.  It is from the St. Paul Pioneer Press.  At that time I had just started working on an acute care inpatient unit at St. Paul-Ramsey Medical Center (SPRMC) after working in a community mental health center (CMHC) for three years.  The CMHC was in northern Wisconsin and SPRMC is in St. Paul, Minnesota.  In this brief letter to the editor, I was listing the style points between both systems.  Wisconsin was known to be an innovator in community mental health essentially inventing active outreach, providing meaningful crisis intervention services, and active case management with a goal of keeping people with severe mental illnesses in their own apartments in the community and out of hospitals.  Anyone with any experience at all realizes that this is the best approach to the problem.  We did not worry about it at the time, but it also kept people out of jail.  We had working relationships with law enforcement and would often see people in jail and facilitate their treatment there and transition back to the community.

As the medical director of a CMHC in Wisconsin in those days, I had a team meeting with case managers and nursing staff every morning.  We discussed crises and treatment plans for the 100 to 110 individuals under our care.  After that meeting everyone (except me) was driving off to meet our patients in the community.  We had an exemplary record of helping these folks stay out of the hospital and our case managers would go to the hospital and help get them discharged if they were at baseline.  We knew the resources, landlords, relatives, doctors, and local crisis housing.  We worked within a system that had a single-minded focus of supporting people in the community and at the administrative level we had state support mandated that the "money follows the client".  That did involve an incredible amount of paper work on the part of our case managers and needing to deal with a county bureaucrat but there were clear significant advantages over other systems.

Flashing forward 30 years has there been much progress?  I can say with certainly there has been absolutely no progress on the Minnesota side.  They have funded some assertive community treatment (ACT) teams but there is still a rationing mentality.  I heard the rationing mentality recently restated by the current head of the state hospital system.  Minnesota currently has a large steady state population of chronically mentally ill patients circulating through emergency departments, available beds, jails, and homelessness.  There is limited bed availability to the point that outpatient psychiatrists have to send their patients to the emergency department (ED) rather than referring them directly to affiliated hospital because they know there are no beds. That is also true for patients who need electroconvulsive therapy.  The constant stream of people to the ED creates a backlog there and getting patients out occurs only if they are held long enough for an inpatient bed to open, discharged untreated, or transferred to another hospital often several counties away.  In the meantime, the state hospital system has been reduced.

In a November meeting of the Minnesota Psychiatric Society (MPS), Kylee Ann Stevens, MD the Executive Director Direct Care and Treatment of the state hospital system provided some numbers for mental illness treatment but not addiction resources.  Those numbers are summarized in the graphic below.      

It is apparent by inspection that there has been a massive reduction is state hospital beds.  Just over the course of my career they have dropped by over 1,000%.  The bed situation is compounded by a "48 hour rule" enacted in 2014 that states that all patients with a question of mental competency in jails or correctional institutes must be admitted to a state facility within 48 hours.  That gives county Sheriffs preferred access to state hospital beds over treating psychiatrists.  Rather than look at recommended hospital beds per population the state does not plan to try to increase the beds.  A quote from the  National Association of State Mental Health Program Directors (NASMHPD) that "Building more inpatient bed capacity to meet demand is unsustainable" provided the rationale.  The conflict of interest there is obvious.  State Directors are basically accountable to politicians and bureaucrats who want to ration state supported health care especially to those with the least vocal advocacy. At one point in Minnesota over 11,000 beds were sustainable. The only thing different today is politics.

There is also a chronic unanswered question that has been hanging in the air for the last 20 years.  Did Minnesota intend to just shut down the state hospital system entirely? Certainly the trajectory of bed closures was on track to do that.  In the MPS meeting we never learned what the absolute minimum number of beds was.  In talking with doctors and nurses who worked in that system they certainly thought that was the goal.  The current minimalist system may be in place by default rather than design - the end product of a failed attempt to close down all of the state hospital beds.

So Minnesota continues to flounder.  What about Wisconsin?  I don't think that their inpatient bed capacity is much better but I don't have the exact number.  The community mental health movement is still alive and well but I am aware of no significant innovation.  The Wisconsin Mental Health Statutes appear to have expanded significantly and law enforcement seems to have assumed more of a gatekeeper role in emergency treatment.  I can't comment on whether the Wisconsin system is more cost effective and patient centered than Minnesota but I invite clinicians to comment on that.

Relative to the initial news clip - progress in general in the treatment of psychiatric disorders is not a word that can be used.  Politicians run these systems and not physicians.  As long as that is true we can depend on no progress.

George Dawson, MD, DFAPA  
News Flash From the StarTribune - Psychiatric Patients Have "Nowhere To Go"

Minnesota's Mental Health Crisis - The Logical Conclusion of 30 years of Rationing

Running the numbers Minnesota has 3.2 state hospital beds for 100,000 people.


  1. "Politicians run these systems and not physicians. As long as that is true we can depend on no progress."

    Sums it up perfectly for me. Actually, I have a subtle premise to why politicians screw up mental health care so pervasively: they don't want the public to see how screwed up the leaders really are, so disrupt and impair the system so people focus on the periphery and not the core.

    Not that we can treat the bastards who cruel, er, rule us every day. Sorry, not a fan of American politics at all, is that a surprise?

    Joel Hassman, MD

  2. I am not surprised, in fact I can relate as we used to say.

    I see it more as corruption, corporate lobbyists advising politicians on how to help them make money by suppressing physicians and helping them capture more money from unsuspecting Americans. It is a genius campaign of making it seem like rationing is good for everyone and necessary for the economy when in fact it is designed to net them about $1 trillion in unnecessary costs.

    All of the available metrics also show quality by most measures does not justify the high cost. The usual high costs also does not capture the real total costs of care. I expect that real out of pocket costs are ruthlessly underestimated.

    Corporate America knows that healthcare is a money making machine for them. They can sell EHRs, pharmaceuticals, computer apps, and all kinds of healthcare products. They can sell them even better when their lobbyists convince some clueless member of Congress to mandate their use.