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Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Experts say mentally ill patients in ERs reaching ‘crisis’ levels

CONCORD – Treatment of the mentally ill is reaching crisis proportions due to a lack of psychiatric beds, a coalition of mental health providers warned at a press conference Monday.

Over a five-month period last summer and fall, 26 adults and seven children were reportedly waiting in a hospital emergency room for an inpatient bed, according to figures that New Hampshire Hospital collected for the state. ...

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CONCORD – Treatment of the mentally ill is reaching crisis proportions due to a lack of psychiatric beds, a coalition of mental health providers warned at a press conference Monday.

Over a five-month period last summer and fall, 26 adults and seven children were reportedly waiting in a hospital emergency room for an inpatient bed, according to figures that New Hampshire Hospital collected for the state.

“Emergency departments are inherently unsafe places to maintain individuals who are psychotic, and or have high impulsivity and or poor judgment,” said Ken Norton, executive director of the state chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness. “This practice heightens the risk for the patient, staff and the general public.”

Individual patients can wait days and weeks before getting the proper treatment. The groups also said emergency room care is in violation of inpatient treatment.

“There is little doubt that holding people in emergency departments is contrary to NH law as defined in RSA 135-C and subsequently violates individual’s civil liberties,” said an issue summary prepared by the coalition.

Dr. P. Travis Harker of Concord spoke of his experience as a medical professor licensed to treat for anxiety, depression and conditions such as bipolar disorder.

“Unfortunately, access is a serious problem in our state,” Hasker said. “Following a referral to one of the community mental health centers, I have patients wait for four to 10 weeks to access psychiatric care because the health centers are stretched so thin.”

Last month, Health and Human Services Commissioner Nick Toumpas acknowledged this was a problem and announced plans to open a new 12-bed unit at New Hampshire Hospital.

Amy Messer with the Disabilities Rights Center said this was not a good, long-term solution.

“At best, this is a Band-Aid solution that may temporarily reduce the number of people being held in emergency rooms,” Messer said in a statement Monday. “It continues the state’s over-reliance on institutions rather than on a robust community system that can prevent hospitalization. Without increasing the capacity of the community mental health system, those 12 beds will be filled, while those ready to be discharged will remain in the hospital awaiting the services that would allow them to return to the community.”

Nancy Rollins, HHS director of community-based care, said the reopened beds at New Hampshire Hospital will probably not be ready until July.

In the meantime, the state is working on plans to offer “bridge housing” for 130 low-income individuals, many with mental health issues, because the federal Section 8 Housing Program has a multiyear waiting list.

“Anything we can do to loosen up the crunch for housing can help a great deal,” Rollins said.

The DRC is demanding a better long-term solution. The organization and its clients have launched a class action suit against the state in federal court, contending the current mental health system is unconstitutionally failing to meet the standard of care.

Several speakers at the press conference called upon Gov. Maggie Hassan and the Legislature to begin with this budget to finance reforms identified in a 10-year action plan for mental health completed in 2008 but never financed.

Kevin Landrigan can reached at 321-7040 or klandrigan@nashuatelegraph.com. Also, follow Landrigan on Twitter (@Klandrigan).