State seeks to improve mental health care system

Officials will use federal funds and legislation to bolster the care R.I. delivers to the mentally ill

Senior Staff Writer
Thursday, February 7, 2013
This article is part of the series Gun Violence

Rhode Island officials are taking steps to improve the state’s mental health care system to prevent violent tragedies after the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Newtown, Conn. Dec. 14.

Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., and Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Ala., introduced legislation Jan. 23 that would give federal funding to states to prevent teen suicide and violence. The Garrett Lee Smith Memorial Act Reauthorization annually allocates $44 million “to help states and non-profit institutions prevent youth suicide,” according to a Senate press release.

“The horrific mass shootings we’ve seen at schools across the country show that more work must be done to address the mental and behavioral health of children and young adults before they hurt themselves and others,” Reed said, according to the press release.

“Many young people have treatable mental illnesses, but they don’t get the help they need,” he added. “In Rhode Island there are more than twice as many suicides as homicides. We can do more to help schools, colleges and universities prevent youth suicide.”

Susan Jacobsen, executive director of the Mental Health Association of Rhode Island, said the state’s community mental health centers — which have suffered from a decrease in federal funding over the last decade — could benefit from the increased federal backing that Reed’s bill proposes.

While Reed’s bill assumes people with mental illness are more likely to commit acts of violence, most mentally ill individuals do not become violent, Jacobsen said. Select mentally ill individuals “with a history of violence and … substance abuse disorder can be at a higher risk of harm to self or others,” but in general, mentally ill people are more likely to be victims of crimes than to commit them, she said.

“I think we have falsely perpetrated the myth that people with mental illness are dangerous,” she added. “The research doesn’t bear that out.”

The Rhode Island Primary Care Physicians Corporation is also making efforts to improve the state’s mental health care system. RIPCPC recently forged an alliance with Rhode Island’s Behavioral Health Providers that “will allow RIPCPC’s physicians to smoothly facilitate direct referral to competent, capable and available behavioral health professionals in a timely manner,” according to a press release from the organization.

“Without this type of concrete relationship between behavioral health and primary care, you’re not going to make as much of an improvement in terms of (patients’) outcomes,” said Noah Benedict, chief operating officer of RIPCPC.

In the past, patient confidentiality policies posed an obstacle to effective communication between RIPCPC and Behavioral Health Providers, Benedict said. The two organizations will discuss and refine these policies as they move forward in their alliance, he added.

While Reed’s bill and RIPCPC’s alliance represent the most recent attempts at reforming Rhode Island’s mental health care system since Gov. Lincoln Chafee ’75 P’14 created the Rhode Island Health Benefits Exchange in 2011.

“The purpose of the exchange is to provide a mechanism for the public to access health insurance and a variety of products in a way that is cost-efficient,” said Christine Hunsinger, Chafee’s press secretary.

State Rep. Joseph McNamara, D-Warwick, Cranston, said the exchange is a “great idea” that may address the discrepancy between public and private insurances’ coverage of mental health.

Rhode Island’s mental health care reform echoes President Obama’s recent proposals in response to the Newtown shooting, which include “increasing access to mental health services,” stricter background checks for gun buyers and more security in schools, according to a White House press release.

Obama’s proposals would provide funding to school districts to equip teachers with the skills and resources needed to recognize mental illness. They would also finalize regulations compelling private health insurers and Medicaid to provide additional coverage for mental health care, according to the press release.

Outlining these proposals at a White House press conference a month after the Newtown shooting, Obama said “We are going to need to work on making access to mental health care as easy as access to a gun.”

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