W.Va. Faces Mental Health Care Crisis

Monday, January 3rd 2005, 11:29 am
By: News On 6

CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) _ West Virginia hospitals spend more on patients suffering from psychosis than on any other diagnosis and almost doubled their mental health spending over four years.

The increased spending, shortage of beds at state-run psychiatric hospitals and the fifth-highest suicide rate in the country indicate a mental health crisis in West Virginia, according to an investigation by the Sunday Gazette-Mail of Charleston.

Mental health care problems are difficult to solve because of the stigma surrounding mental illness, said Eugenie Taylor, acting commissioner at the state Bureau of Health and Health Facilities.

``If this was any other disease, there would be a groundswell of support for change,'' she said.

State hospitals in 2003 spent $101 million treating psychosis, up from $52 million four years earlier, according to the state Health Care Authority.

The state Supreme Court reports that the number of ``mental hygiene petitions'' _ which are requested by police, social workers and family members to commit people to mental hospitals _ has increased by 45 percent between 1999 and 2003.

Meanwhile, the number of mentally ill people in regional jails has almost doubled in four years, from 5,862 in 2000 to an estimated 11,000 in 2004. More than one in four inmates received mental health services last year, up from one in five in 2000, and the number of mentally ill inmates is growing faster than the total population.

Both state-run psychiatric hospitals had empty beds four years ago, but by last year they had become so overcrowded that more than 1,000 patients had to be sent to private facilities at a cost of $3.5 million.

A record 290 West Virginians committed suicide in 2001, while another 277 took their own lives in 2002. Those totals were up from 224 suicides in 1998, according to the state Bureau for Public Health.

A recent report by the state Department of Health and Human Resources says mental health providers spent $90 million more than they should have during the 1990s. When federal officials demanded a payback, former DHHR Secretary Joan Ohl arranged to have the debt forgiven in exchange for the state turning over mental health payments to a managed care company to cut costs.

Because of that deal, the state's community mental health centers lost 40 percent of their Medicaid funding in just two years, according to the report.

As a result, the number of group home beds dropped from 203 to 84, and caseworkers could not visit clients at home as often, according to a DHHR memo. They had less time to help clients pay their bills or the rent, and inpatient programs to treat substance abuse were cut or eliminated.

State officials have responded by replacing some lost Medicaid money with state funds over the last two years, and have appointed an ``overbedding task force'' to address crowding at the state psychiatric hospitals, Taylor said.