News Article Details

'There's going to be people dying.' Can Gulf Coast Mental Health overcome financial ruin?

Sun Herald - 7/19/2019

Jul. 19--GULFPORT -- The Gulf Coast Mental Health Center has sunk into a financial crisis because of billing problems, threatening the mental health and safety of thousands of clients and their families, mental health professionals say.

"There's going to be people dying," clinical psychologist Julie Teater told the Sun Herald. "And it's not just going to be patients, unfortunately.

" . . . What happens when they're not being medicated and treated? What happens to them? What happens to their families? What happens to the children in their home? They could be hurt, directly or indirectly."

Vickie Taylor, interim director of the agency, said her understanding is that money has run out because at some point the agency stopped billing insurance companies, including Medicaid, for the services it was providing.

The GCMHC board voted Tuesday to close the agency. But Taylor told a room filled with worried law enforcement officers Thursday afternoon that she hopes to keep the doors open with funding from the state and offers of assistance from the private mental health community.

She said calls started coming in after the Sun Herald reported Thursday morning that the agency planned to close.

A forensic audit in December found no financial malfeasance, she said.

The agency initiated a hiring freeze in February and is currently unable to hire an employee who can handle billing. She said the deadline has passed for collecting on some of the old bills. She did not know, when asked by police officers, how much money the agency lost.

"Keeping the doors open is great," she said, "but to be successful, we're going to need to hire."

Broken system

Nobody questions the urgency of the situation.

The GCMHC serves thousands of children and adults in four South Mississippi counties: Harrison, Hancock, Stone and Pearl River. It is part of a statewide mental health network divided into regions and operating under standards set by the state Department of Mental Health.

The GCMHC operates a crisis stabilization unit and day programs for the chronically mentally ill and developmentally disabled. Its caseworkers help keep stable mentally ill clients living in their communities, checking to make sure they are stable and safe.

Substance abuse programs and inpatient treatment are also among GCMHC's services.

A majority of its clients are uninsured or underinsured. Teater said severe mental illnesses such as schizophrenia most often strike young adults who have never had the chance to establish careers.

"We can't keep these people in jail," she said. "That's not where they belong. You don't put a diabetic who is in a diabetic coma in jail because they wreck their car."

Teater said services at GCMHC have been inadequate for some time. She, Gulfport Police Chief Leonard Papania and a representative of the Harrison County Sheriff's Department went to the Board of Supervisors months ago about the problem.

Teater evaluates people to determine if they are a danger to themselves or others and should be involuntary committed by the courts. Patients who are committed are often housed at GCMHC's Crisis Stabilization Unit in Gulfport. Ideally, they are stabilized and return to their communities.

She kept seeing the same patients over and over. In at least one case, she was asked to evaluate a person who had been committed three days earlier.

"There are patients I have committed more than 12 times in a year," she said.

Taylor indicated a big part of the problem is lack of staffing. Even before the freeze, former employees have told the Sun Herald, the center was losing staff under previous director Shellie Foreman, who resigned in April.

"There are many clients without an assigned therapist right now," Taylor said. The agency is down 15 therapists, a low estimate. A therapist typically handles a caseload of up to 300 adults or up to 100 children.

Crisis intervention jeopardized

The crucial nature of GCMHC services was driven home by the original purpose of Thursday afternoon's meeting with police officers at the agency's offices on Broad Avenue in Gulfport.

The law enforcement community had been expecting to finally start Crisis Intervention Teams in partnership with GCMHC. Law enforcement agencies have been looking forward to CTI and, for the past two years or so, training officers and getting ready to participate in the program.

Now, they don't know if the program will go forward, even though it has in counties that are in other mental health regions.

Crisis intervention teaches officers to deescalate dangerous situations involving mentally ill suspects and get them help rather than putting them in jail. A shortage of money means GCMHC has been unable to hire a crisis intervention coordinator for the program.

"It's such a tool," said Pass Christian police Sgt. Kyle Craig, who previously worked with the program as a Memphis police officer. "The thought of not having it is devastating. It's the bridge to offering help that matters."

Public Guardian J.D. Lee wants to know what happens after Aug. 1, when GCMHC says it will no longer be able to accept mentally ill patients the court commits. With funding set to run out Aug. 11, the agency did not want to admit patients it would be unable to continue treating.

Despite the time gap, Lee said, "the commitments don't stop."

"I don't have an answer for that," Vickie Taylor said.

The GCMHC board said in a letter to county supervisors that these patients would be sent directly to the state hospital.

Julie Teater handled 569 commitments in 2018 and has been working on them since 2003. She said she has never had a patient accepted overnight at the state hospital because there is always a waiting list.

The community has an ethical obligation to provide services to the mentally ill, Craig said, but there's also another consideration.

"From a legal standpoint," he said, "we cannot deny mental health services."

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(c)2019 The Sun Herald (Biloxi, Miss.)

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