Nonprofit mental health care providers sound alarm

They say clinics will close without ample funds

January 25, 2002|By Howard Libit | Howard Libit,SUN STAFF

Nonprofit mental health care providers warned yesterday that they're in danger of going out of business unless the state puts more money into the system and starts paying its bills more quickly.

"If you don't do something, you won't have any clinics left," Craig Knoll, executive director of Threshold Services in Montgomery County, told lawmakers.

"We're waiting until April 8," the last day of the General Assembly session, Knoll said. "If the right things happen, we'll keep the clinics open. And if not, we'll close them down."

Maryland health officials acknowledged that state funding for mental health services has fallen short, and said they're working with providers to try to fix some of the problems. "What we're looking at are very significant growing pains in what is a good system serving a very needy population," said Dr. Georges Benjamin, the state health secretary.

But members of the House Environmental Matters Committee said they're alarmed by the reports of imminent clinic closures.

"I'm sort of amazed it has taken you so long to recognize that problems exist," said Del. John Adams Hurson, a Montgomery Democrat and chairman of the committee. "I think you need to do something much sooner than this spring."

By the end of the briefing yesterday, Hurson directed Benjamin's staff to join the providers in weekly meetings with members of his committee until they figure out an answer "on an immediate basis."

Maryland's public community-based mental health clinics provide services for about 80,000 people - up from about 50,000 in 1997, according to the state. Funding has increased about 30 percent since then, but that hasn't stopped the system from accumulating large deficits. Last year, the Assembly created a tax amnesty program that generated $30 million to help cover past deficits.

Gov. Parris N. Glendening's budget proposal for next year includes a $25 million increase for mental health care services, although lawmakers and providers said those programs still appear to be in danger of deficits.

Mental Hygiene Administration Director Oscar L. Morgan said the state is trying to help providers manage their finances better and is seeking ways to provide grant money for those in financial trouble.

But officials from mental health clinics said many of their problems can be traced to changes made in the summer by the agency to try to save money. They charged that the state has made the reimbursement process more complicated and has slowed its payment schedule. "We have had enormous problems getting claims through, not to mention getting claims paid," said Lori Doyle, vice president of ReVisions Behavioral Health Systems.

The organization's outpatient mental health clinic serves about 360 clients at sites in Catonsville and Laurel. Those facilities are losing $21,000 per month, Doyle said.

The changes requested by providers include an additional $20 million from the state through a supplemental budget. Providers said changes such as the state depositing payments into their accounts electronically could help ease cash-flow problems.

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