Thursday, December 9, 2010

With closing of mental health clinic Oct. 1, patients seek out Texas county's MHMR services

From the El Paso Times:

Patients who lost care when a mental-health clinic closed Oct. 1 are running out of medication and are turning to El Paso Mental Health Mental Retardation for help, officials with the agency said Dec. 6.

And with many expected to exhaust a 90-day supply of drugs early next month, MHMR officials predict the problem will grow.

"We're going to see a crescendo after the first of the year," said Kristi Daugherty, director of Sun City Behavioral Clinic, which is run by MHMR.

But other officials said the problem is not as bad as MHMR officials are saying.

"I don't think it's as bleak as some would make it out to be," said County Commissioner and County Judge-elect Veronica Escobar.

Faced with a tight budget, the commissioners in August voted to cut $1.5 million in funding for the Nueva Esperanza clinic, which they created a year earlier to care for the mentally ill without health insurance.

MHMR CEO Gary Larcenaire said closure of the clinic would leave 1,500 people without care, but Escobar on Monday said the number of patients without insurance was really 675.

When commissioners voted to stop funding the clinic, University Medical Center of El Paso said it would work with patients to find them care elsewhere in the community, including at its clinics. But Daugherty on Monday said she is getting 10 to 20 calls a day and five to 10 visits a week from former patients of the Nueva Esperanza clinic.

"People are saying, 'We're out of meds and what are you going to do about it?' " Daugherty said.

Some patients cannot get appointments with their new doctors until after medications run out. Others are seeing primary-care physicians who are not comfortable prescribing drugs for mental illness, Daugherty said.

MHMR workers know of no violent incidents stemming patients' lack of medicine, Daugherty said.

The problems are not surprising, said Margaret Althoff-Olivas, a spokeswoman for University Medical Center.

"That really should not come as a surprise to anyone," she said. "El Paso is drastically underserved when it comes to psychiatrists."

So far, there have been relatively few emergencies, Althoff-Olivas said. In October, 15 mentally ill patients in crisis showed up at the medical center's emergency room. In November, 20 such patients went there, Althoff-Olivas said.

To help ease the problem, Escobar said she wants MHMR to train doctors at two nonprofit clinics to care for patients with mental illness who used to go to Nueva Esperanza.

County Judge Anthony Cobos said he sympathized with those responsible for taking care of El Paso County's mentally ill.

"While funding is shrinking, demand is going up," he said. "You're in a very difficult position."