The McCrory administration said Thursday it would undertake a new effort to improve mental health care, in particular finding ways to divert the mentally ill from hospital emergency rooms and county jails to facilities where they can receive appropriate treatment.
A new statewide initiative that was announced by Aldona Wos, the Department of Health and Human Services secretary, lacked specifics of how much it would cost, or how it will be paid for, or how it would be accomplished – problems that have plagued past mental health reform efforts.
“It is only the beginning of a very long process,” Wos said at a news conference.
But she offered some concrete goals in which the public could measure success. DHHS will begin posting quarterly scorecards on the percentage of emergency department visits for mental or substance abuse disorders, the wait times in emergency rooms for state hospital inpatient care for mental patients, and the number of mentally ill people who have been admitted to ERs that are readmitted within 30 days.
“With today’s announcement, we begin a focused, long-term effort to ensure that individuals and families who are experiencing a mental health or substance abuse crisis know where to turn for the help they need,” Wos said. “In turn, we can begin to reduce the tremendous burden that these issues place on hospital emergency departments and law enforcement.”
Each year, there are an estimated 150,000 visits to emergency rooms in North Carolina related to acute psychiatric or addictive disorder crisis. Thirteen percent of patients with a mental health crisis who are treated in an emergency department will return within 30 days. In addition, national studies suggest that 17 percent of people in jail have a serious mental illness.
The news conference was at WakeBrook, the Wake County psychiatric facility operated by UNC Healthcare, which is regarded as state of the art in handling mental illness. Wake County EMS crews screen patients to determine whether they can be best served at a traditional hospital ER or whether they can be better helped in a psychiatric facility such as WakeBrook.
Last year, the Wake EMS pilot program allowed 248 individuals to avoid a trip to hospital emergency rooms and to get treatment at a mental health facility instead, officials said.
Dave Richard, the director of the Division of Mental Health, said most counties may not be able to afford a top-of-the-line psychiatric facility such as WakeBrook, but there are alternatives that would be appropriate for their communities.
Wos also touted the state’s new telepsychiatry network that connects psychiatrists to 60 hospital across the state.