Thursday, March 1, 2012

Is it the economy?

The lead story in this week's Psychiatric Times was sent to me in e-mail this morning under the subject "Economy Threatens Psychiatry Programs". It provides the news that the Cedars-Sinai Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Neurosciences is essentially being phased out except for "staffing of psychiatric support that is an adjunct to patient care throughout the medical center." It quotes an unnamed academic psychiatrist as saying that the real reason that psychiatric programs are getting the axe is that they are the least profitable services offered at any hospital. The article goes on to suggest that declining Medicare funding of Graduate Medical Education may threaten additional programs.
The only real explanation and dose of reality in that article was the quote from their anonymous source. Psychiatric programs and bed capacity have been closing down for the past 20 years. It is the direct product of managed care strategies either being applied directly by the managed care cartel or through their friends and allies in the government. I have previously posted on this blog how psychiatric services have been marginalized from an economic standpoint.  That should be obvious from surveying any acute care hospitals in your state. In the state of Minnesota for example, a minority of the total hospitals have psychiatric units and fewer are staffed for chemical dependency services.  That has resulted in the need to transfer patients in crisis in emergency departments across the state or in some cases in different states. As a result any involved family members have to travel hundreds of miles to maintain contact with that person.  The economy for psychiatry has been bad for the last 20 years.
The evolution of this process is apparently so insidious that nobody pays attention to it. The only way that the minority of hospitals with psychiatric units can continue to operate and staff those units with psychiatrists is if they do a high volume, low quality DRG based business or they are subsidized to some degree out of the profit margin of other departments. In that case, an economic argument can be made that more severely ill psychiatric patients or medically ill psychiatric patients would never leave medical or surgical units if there were not psychiatric units available to receive them in transfer.
This process is easily reversed by providing adequate compensation for psychiatric care. The reimbursement levels for inpatient care are so trivial that an inpatient psychiatric unit is currently the least expensive place to maintain the patient.  At some point, treatment on a DRG based inpatient unit is cheaper than a group home and much cheaper than a state hospital.  That creates additional incentives and barriers to discharge from the hospital.
The bottom line is that it is not the economy.  There has been a systematic bias against mental health services for at least 20 years.  It is well past the time for psychiatrists and other advocates to remove the term "cost effective" from their dialogue. Psychiatric and mental health services have been the most cost effective medical services for at least the past 20 years and there is no reason for expecting them to get less expensive. Reversing that trend and providing compensation that is at least on par with the rest of medicine will allow for quality psychiatric hospital services and outpatient clinics.

George Dawson, MD
Stephen Barlas. Elimination of Psych Services at Cedars-Sinai Could Foreshadow Similar Cutbacks Elsewhere.  Psychiatric Times Vol 29, No2, February 8, 2012 
Endnote:  According to the Minnesota Hospital Association 29 of 136 acute care hospitals have beds staffed for mental health care and 6 of 136 have beds staffed for chemical dependency care.

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