Sunday, August 31, 2014

Shut Down The Psychiatric Gulags - Don't Build More!

On my drive home from work yesterday, I heard an outrageous story about a judge ordering LA County jail to build 3,200 psychiatric beds to treat mentally ill inmates in that facility.  As is typical of MPR, I could not find the link today but I did find the link to this LA Weekly story , that basically brings people up to speed.  It is a typical journalistic approach with the human interest component.  In this case the human interest portion was interesting to me, because I have heard these stories hundreds of times from people I have treated who have been incarcerated with a few variations.  The most significant variations have to do with suffering acute alcohol or drug withdrawal and not being assessed or treated for that problem and not having access to maintenance medications that have proven effective for the specific mental illness.  The current plight of the mentally ill in the LA County jail system and increasing judicial pressure on the basis of rights violations for the lack of treatment led county supervisors to vote to build what was called the most expensive building project in county history.  From the article:

"That day, county supervisors ........ voted to spend nearly $2 billion on a long-sought jail to replace notorious Men's Central, a facility that federal investigators say is plagued by suicides, abusive conditions and violence. The funds will build a two-tower compound given the ungainly name "Consolidated Correctional Treatment Facility."

According to the article it will be a 4,860 bed facility,  3,260 (67%) beds of which will be dedicated to treating prisoners with mental illness.  My most recent post on the matter includes information that LA County jail has 19,386 inmates and that recent epidemiological surveys suggest that 30-45% of inmates have problems due to severe mental illness and impaired functional capacity.   That suggests that unless public policy changes, the most expensive building project in LA County could be overwhelmed by demand before it gets started.  The author in this case points out the folly of building this tower.  It is basically the folly of building any large psychiatric facility in the absence of any other infrastructure, but in this case compounded by the fact that this is in fact a jail and not a treatment facility.  There is really no evidence that the problematic aggressive or suicidal behavior will be any better in a new "two-tower compound" with the same jail atmosphere and mentality.

I have previously posted about the plight of the mentally ill being incarcerated in America and the fact that county jails are currently our largest mental institutions.  It is a basic collusion between governments at all levels and the business community to enrich corporations that have been set up to "manage" the American healthcare system.  As usual, the most vulnerable people are "cost shifted" out.  Cost shifting refers to cost center accounting that basically leads divisions within the same organization to try to save money on their budget by shifting the costs to somebody else.  In managed care systems it can lead to all kinds of distortions in care.  It also happens with outside agencies.  I was told about a situation where workers in one county actually dragged an  intoxicated patient over the county line and into another county so that patient would no longer be their  financial responsibility!  Cost shifting is the end result of these perverse incentives.

There is perhaps no better example than incarceration rather than hospitalization.  There are estimates as recent as from a few days ago that treatment and possible hospitalization may cost $20,000/year as opposed to incarceration costing $60,000/year.  In both cases the taxpayers pick up most of the tab.  The cost shifting has occurred from insurance companies and health care systems to the correctional system.  If an insurance company can dump a patient with a severe mental illness into jail, it doesn't cost them a thing.   If that same patient is hospitalized they may receive a one-time DRG (Diagnosis Related Group) payment of about $5,000 irrespective of how long the patient stays.  The hospital incentive is to get them out in 5 days whether they are stable or not to maximize profit.  When they are discharged, the patients are generally expected to go to appointments to discuss their medications.  Clinic profits on these visits are minimal but the main problem is that many of these appointments are missed - in some cases up to 50-60%.  Many of these patients lack stable housing and they frequently end up back in the emergency department and back in the hospital.  Hospitals now have bottlenecks in the emergency department and many people are discharged back to the street.  The cycle of ineffective care continues.

I can attempt a brief analysis of the problem as I watched it unfold during 23 years of inpatient practice.  I will demonstrate how things have changed to the detriment of patients with severe mental illness.  Consider the hypothetical case of Mr. A.  He has diagnoses of depression, schizophrenia and alcohol dependence.   He recently ran out of his usual medications and started drinking.  He became progressively depressed and stopped talking with his family members.  They went over to see him and noticed he has a loaded handgun on his table and was talking about shooting himself.   They called the police who came, confiscated his handgun, noted that he was acutely intoxicated and sent him to the local hospital emergency department.  How has the management of this scenario changed over the past 30 years and why?

In the early 1980s, Mr. A would have been assessed as a person who was high risk for ongoing suicidal behavior (depression, schizophrenia, alcoholism and acute intoxication) and admitted to a psychiatric unit.  The psychiatrist there would have done everything possible to stabilize all three conditions even if it meant civil commitment to a long term care institution.  The length of stay (LOS) would have been on the order of 20-30 days comparable to many current psychiatric LOS in the European Union.

By the late 1980s, a managed care company would have called the hospital or psychiatrist in charge.  They would initially demanded that the patient be discharged to a county detox facility.  They would claim that alcohol withdrawal detoxification was not a psychiatric problem, and therefore the patient does not meet their "medical necessity criteria" for inpatient hospitalization.  If that was ineffective they might say that he was no longer "acutely suicidal" or "imminently dangerous" two additional medical necessity criteria.  In the end they always win, because they just stop paying and the administrators force the clinicians to discharge the patient.  The length of stay is now down to less than 1 week and the patient may not be stable at all at the time of discharge.

By the 1990s, the patient might not even make it to the inpatient unit.  By now psychiatric departments are continuously burned by managed care companies, especially in the case of any patient who is acutely intoxicated at the time of admission.  Many have closed their doors.  Many departments have strongly suggested that the emergency departments send any intoxicated patients directly to county detox units if they are available.  The counties respond by refusing to take any patients on any intoxicants than than alcohol and even then the patient has to blow a number on a breathalyzer consistent with acute alcohol intoxication.   At any point in this process a decision can be made to just send the patient home.  There are various ways the patient can access more firearms at that point or even get the original firearm that was confiscated.  There are also various ways that the patient can end up incarcerated including going back home, drinking and getting arrested for disorderly conduct or public intoxication.  A more complicated situation occurs if the patient is intoxicated and wanders into a neighbor's home or place of business.  I have seen people end up in jail for months on trespassing charges in these situations.   And that brings us in to the 2000s where it is much more likely that a person with severe mental illness will be incarcerated than even make it to the emergency department.  In the 2000s the patient may end up stranded in the emergency department for days or sent home with a bottle of benzodiazepines to handle their own detox if they can deny that the are "suicidal" consistently enough.  There is also the mater of inpatient bed capacity.  Fewer beds are full constantly because bed capacity has been shut down due to managed care rationing and people are often released because there will be no open beds in the foreseeable future.  The LOS in many cases is now zero days, even for people with severe problems.

How did all of this happen?  How did the care of mental illness and addictions fall to such a miserable standard?  It is documented in many posts on this blog.  Professional guidelines were compromised and treatment infrastructure was destroyed by the managed care industry and the politicians who actively supported and continue to support it.  Professional organizations don't stand a chance against pro business state statutes,  commissions stacked with industry insiders, and federal legislation that protects these companies from lawsuits for interference with care.  Even a travesty as basic as prior authorization for generic drugs is unassailable.  I don't understand why these basic facts are so incomprehensible to people in the field.  Just a few hours ago, 1BOM posted a Hall of Shame of entities the original authors claim are failing people with severe mental illness.  This list completely misses the mark and is probably a good example of how deeply entrenched the mechanisms are to prevent treatment  and shift costs away from states and health care companies.

There are countless easy solutions to the problems, but the companies in power literally do not want to spend a dime.  The patient with severe mental illness can receive comprehensive community services and be maintained in their own housing at a cost of $10, 000 to $20, 000/year for clinical services.  That same patient costs corrections departments $60,000 per year.  That patient currently costs managed care companies nothing if they can transfer their care to a local state-funded Assertive Community Treatment (ACT) team.  Managed care companies incur the same cost if the patient is transferred to the correctional system.  If ACOs come to fruition and all of the chronically mentally ill are enrolled, it should be an easy matter to make the managed care companies responsible for both the costs and the patient.  A simple court order to pick up the patient from jail and stabilize them in the community could suffice.

Erecting more gulags won't work.  They are effective only for enriching health care companies that profit by denying care for those with severe mental illnesses and addictions.  They are also another hidden health care tax on the taxpayers who are already paying far too much in hidden health care taxes.

George Dawson, MD, DFAPA

Graphics Credit:  ConceptDraw Pro - this graphic was included as an example with this software.


  1. Do think this will have the unintended consequence of making the remaining psych ward populations less violent?

    And, yes, I have no idea how it is in today's world.

  2. Not necessarily but at the fringes it is a complicated problem. Every state has a small forensic population and in that population are a group of people who cannot be treated for various reasons. There is also a larger group of people who are incarcerated due to NGRI decisions since the defense is generally unsuccessful, even in cases where the person clearly has a mental illness that led to the crime.

    In acute care populations, most of the aggression and violence is associated with acute symptoms. The vast majority of violent crime risk on the street is due to career criminals and that violence usually has some planning associated with it and has nothing to dow with mental illness.

    My concern and my direct experience suggests that people with severe mental illnesses are incarcerated because they create a nuisance or accidentally commit a misdemeanor and don't have the usual resources or contacts to get out of jail. They are predisposed to these episodes if they are experiencing symptoms and that also puts them at risk for confrontation with law enforcement if they are unable to comply with police commands to comply with investigation or arrest procedures.

  3. It is really sad to have people in that sort of situation. There could be some positive effects from the psychiatric work that goes on in there, but like that council said, there is a better way to serve these patients. I think this is a great step forward.

    Gerald Vonberger |