Could NC Hospitals Be the Surprising and Much Needed Advocate for Mentally Ill Medicaid Recipients?

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North Carolina has created the perfect storm when it comes to mentally ill…the perfect scenario for disaster.  10…9….8…..7……6…….5……..4………3………..2…………..

From 2001 to 2012, the total population of North Carolina increased from 8,203,734 people to 9,781,022.  Over 1 and a half million more people live here now than twelve years ago.  Which is understandable when you think about all the people relocating here.

The number of NC residents in need of mental health services has increased from 517,447 in 2001 to 613,379 in 2012 (not sure how many are on Medicaid).  However, since 2001, the number of inpatient psychiatric beds has DECREASED by fifty percent (50%), from approximately 1,750 beds to approximately 850 beds.  850 beds!!  Not even enough beds to serve 1/10 of the population in need!!

In the past, it was understandable to decrease the number of psychiatric beds.  NC was doing a fairly decent, not perfect, by any means, but a decent job of providing community-based mental health services to those in need. 

Those days of decent care for mentally ill Medicaid recipients are over.  Instead, we have the perfect storm for utter disaster.

Enter main ingredient of the perfect storm…the managed care organizations (MCOs).  In NC, we moved only behavioral health care to the MCOs.  Basically, if you are on Medicaid and need any type of health care services, besides behavioral health services, you will never come into contact with an MCO.  However, if you suffer from a mental illness, a developmental disability, or a substance abuse problem and rely on Medicaid for insurance, you have encountered the MCOs.

Prior to 2013 (except for the experimental 1st MCO, which was called Piedmont Behavioral Health, but now called Cardinal Innovations), the MCOs did not exist.  Literally, the MCOs have gone “live” this year.  The MCOs are new to being the gatekeepers of mental health services for Medicaid recipients in NC.

Not only do we have these new, inexperienced companies deciding which Medicaid recipients may receive mental health services, but we, in our great wisdom, gave them the monetary incentive to DENY services to recipients and to DENY providers Medicaid contracts, which is the 2nd ingredient for the perfect storm.  Oh yes, we did all that!  The MCOs are prepaid.  So, in theory, the MCOs are taking the burden of risk (i.e., going over budget) off the State and onto themselves.  If the MCOs go over budget, it is on the MCOs to come up with the money.  However, in reality, the MCOs, to save on money and increase profit, are denying medically necessary services and terminating (or not enrolling) quality health care providers.  See my blog “The NC Medicaid Mental Health 10-Ring Circus: How 10 Mini Jurisdictions Will Be the Downfall of Mental Health.”

Enter the 3rd ingredient to the perfect storm…the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS), Division of Medical Assistance (DMA)’s complete absence of supervision of the MCOs.

The MCOs have full reign and uninhibited authority to deny mental health care services, to terminate Medicaid provider contracts, or to refuse to contract with Medicaid providers with absolutely ZERO repercussions (unless you hire an attorney (not necessarily me) and obtain an injunction) from DMA, from the federal government, from anyone.  See my blog “The MCOs: Judge, Jury, and Executioner.”

[The equation for the perfect storm = the decreased number of psychiatric beds + increase in population + the increase of mentally ill residents + the MCOs + the monetary incentive for MCOs to deny services and not enroll providers + DMA's complete lack of supervision]

As I am sure you are aware, a week or so ago, Virginia state Senator Creigh Deeds was stabbed multiple times by his son.  Deeds was hospitalized for three days, but his son took his own life after stabbing his father.  According to the media, Deeds’ son, Gus Deeds, suffered from severe mental problems and the day prior to the stabbing, an emergency custody order was sought.  However, a psychiatric bed, reportedly, could not be found.

Sadly, the tragic story of Gus Deeds is too common.  In Modern Healthcare this week, the feature story is called, “No Room for the Mentally Ill.”

The article discusses how the hospitals “are trying to collaborate with other hospitals  to place psychiatric patients in open beds, using separate psychiatric EDs, setting up crisis triage centers, and referring patients to residential treatment centers.” See Modern Healthcare, dated November 18, 2013.

The hospitals may be acting in a self-serving manner.  Most mentally ill patients, who are admitted to the ERs are not paying clients.  The hospitals cannot turn a profit if too many non-paying clients are admitted to the ER.  However, whatever the motivation, I say, thank goodness, and God bless the hospitals’ efforts!

Mentally ill, Medicaid recipients may be the demographic with the LEAST voice of all demographics in existence. 

Sadly, few care about poor people, and even fewer care about poor people suffering with MH/DD/SA. (When I say “care,” I mean will devote time, resources, and energy to them.  I mean hire lobbyists for them, hire attorneys.)

Here, in NC, we are staring into the face of a perfect storm.  If the hospitals can make headway with a bigger voice than those depending on Medicaid with behavioral health issues, God bless the hospitals, whatever the reason for their advocacy.

Because, perhaps, without the hospitals, we could be seeing:

3….2…..1……BOOM!