Officials plan for boost in mental health care

yamaro@mercedsunstar.comDecember 1, 2012 

Merced County mental health officials say they're getting ready to meet the demand for more patient services under the Affordable Care Act.

About half a million uninsured adults in California could get access to needed mental health services under the federal health care reform, according to a study released Wednesday by the UCLA Center for Health Policy Research.

Imelda Padilla-Frausto, lead author of the study, said the health reform would implement the Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act of 2008.

"They will have access to mental health services, which is very beneficial to people who are uninsured and have mental health needs," she said.

The Merced County Department of Mental Health has begun partnering with other community agencies in anticipation of receiving the additional patients.

Sharon Jones, a Mental Health Services Act coordinator in Merced, said the agency is working with the Livingston Medical Group, Castle Family Health Centers and the Golden Valley Health Centers to have a mental health clinician at each of those sites.

"We are trying to expand the services to the community even more," she said.

Three priorities for the mental health department include integration, quality patient outcomes and productivity, Jones said. With that, officials hope to create more awareness of the services available, hire more staff and increase capacity.

Officials are making the transition to electronic health records, Jones said. "That's a huge part of getting ready as well," she added.

One more important aspect of preparing for the patient expansion, Jones said, is education. It's important to teach patients how to navigate the system to get services, she said.

In line with those efforts, Perry Watkins, manager of Marie Green In-Patient and Crisis Stabilization units in Merced, gave a talk Wednesday titled "Navigating the Mental Health System." His presentation was part of a series of events organized by the National Alliance on Mental Illness Merced County.

Watkins said the crisis outpatient unit is open 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The unit takes patients of all ages, but they're only able to stay there for up to 20 hours.

Patients can walk in or they can be directed to the crisis unit from a hospital, he said.

The inpatient hospital area at Marie Green has 16 beds. Patients there can stay for several hours or several days as needed, Watkins said. But they only take patients ages 18 and older.

The hospital is usually half full, he said, and the patient flow at the crisis unit varies.

"It's a great need," Watkins said. "We stay pretty busy."

And they're not the only ones who stay busy. The county mental health department last year placed 22 to 23 mental health clinicians in schools throughout the county, Jones said.

Crystal Barrera, a mental health clinician at the Hilmar and Delhi school districts, said she had 65 cases in one year. "There was an unmet need in all of those areas," she said.

Being present at those school districts has already made a difference, Barrera said. "A lot of youth otherwise wouldn't be able to access the services," she said of mental health assistance being provided.

Many more in critical need of those same services will be able to receive them as the agency expands to meet the increased demand under the Affordable Care Act, Padilla-Frausto said.

It's difficult to know how the change will impact mental health in Merced County now, Watkins said, but officials are glad that more people will be able to access treatment.

"It's been needed for many years," he said. "The need is tremendous. There are a lot of uninsured people out there in need of mental health services."

Reporter Yesenia Amaro can be reached at (209) 385-2482, or yamaro@mercedsunstar.com.

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