05/19/09 — Legislators: Mental health care system on the mend

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Legislators: Mental health care system on the mend

By Matthew Whittle
Published in News on May 19, 2009 1:46 PM

At the risk of repeating the same themes from last year, local mental health officials and members of Wayne County's state legislative delegation gathered Monday morning to discuss and to update one another on the state's mental health system.

And while all agreed that there do seem to be signs of progress, the head of the local management entity, Eastpointe Director Ken Jones, probably summed it up best.

"The system is still fragile, even though it's on the mend," he said.

But when asked if he felt like a broken record with that comment -- one he seems to have made in some form or another ever since mental health reform began -- he explained that he really believes it to be true.

"We're doing better. The secretary says we're no longer in reform, that we're building a system now. And he's right," Jones said, referring to state Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Lanier Cansler. "But there is still a lot of work to do."

However, he admitted the state's budget woes could hamper those efforts.

For example, the original draft from Gov. Beverly Perdue and the state Senate would eliminate a 25-bed unit from Cherry Hospital, expecting that capacity to be made up by community hospitals like Wayne Memorial.

The problem with that, however, explained Sen. Don Davis, D-Greene, is that Wayne and other hospitals and facilities in the East are not prepared to take on those kinds of burdens.

That's why, he said, he offered an amendment -- one not discussed by the Senate, but one he hopes will be adopted by the time the budget reaches conference committee -- to not eliminate those beds outright, but to slowly begin reducing them as community capacity grows.

"We need to expand our beds in the East. As we do, then we can begin to reduce them in the state facilities so that we can then have a smooth transition," Davis said.

Ultimately, said Rep. Van Braxton, D-Lenoir, a member of the House Mental Health Reform Committee, the goal is for hospitals like Wayne Memorial to provide the short-term care patients need when they fall off their medicine cycles, while state facilities like Cherry provide longer-term care, and the LMEs and community providers work to fill in the gaps, monitor patients and help in transitions.

But, he also acknowledged that getting to that point is going to take some time.

"We changed the way we did business. We changed from a state system to a community system, and when you make changes of that magnitude it's going to take some time to work out the kinks," Braxton said. "We moved quickly before and it cost us. Now we're making small changes and making sure those are woking properly before moving on, and I think that's prudent. It's going to take several years to get the system where we want it."

In the meantime, Davis confirmed that construction of the new Cherry Hospital is continuing to move ahead as planned -- "the funding remains in place."

And overall, Jones said, he feels confident that the Legislature understands the importance of supporting the mental health system, which serves approximately 10,000 patients every month.

Still, said new Cherry Hospital Director Philip Cook, there are things that can be done to improve the system that don't necessarily require funding -- things that he and Jones are already beginning to work informally together to accomplish.

"Improve coordination and communication," he said. "It doesn't require money, but it does require work.

"We want to provide a seamless system for the patients we serve -- a continuity of care. The patient's the one who suffers in the gaps."

The key, Jones continued, is for everybody to be working toward the same goal -- making sure patients are receiving the proper care throughout their hospitalization, discharge and introduction to medication and community resources.

"It's a common sense thing," Cook said.

Unfortunately, he added, it's something that mental health systems across the nation struggle with -- and something, Jones admitted, that North Carolina's is just now beginning to understand.

"We're just now realizing the importance of that kind of thing," Jones said.