Mental health clinic gets emergency grant

$49,000 from state will help Omni House stay open, avoid cutbacks

April 17, 2002|By Jackie Powder | Jackie Powder,SUN STAFF

Omni House, the struggling Glen Burnie mental health care provider, has received an emergency grant of $49,000 from state health officials to keep its doors open - at least temporarily - and hold off additional service cutbacks.

The community-based clinic is one of many around the state trying to cope with a lack of funding and with administrative problems, such as delays in payment, in the state's public mental health system.

Several clinics have closed, including two in Anne Arundel, and financial pressures forced Omni House to shut down two of its programs in December.

The $49,000 grant is being channeled through the county's Core Service Agency, which oversees and monitors public mental health services. The money is intended to cover debt the clinic incurred after treating hundreds of patients left without mental health services when the private Corner Clinic closed two county facilities in 2000, said Frank A. Sullivan, executive director of the Core Service Agency.

"Basically, they took these clients on in good faith, believing they were going to get paid for the services they provided, and it turned out, for very complicated reasons, they did not get paid," Sullivan said. "They produced documentation on those cases, and we gave them a partial reimbursement for that bad debt."

Lois Miller, Omni House's chief executive officer, described the money as "a small dent" in the clinic's estimated $200,000 in losses last year, mainly from lack of reimbursement for services through the state's public mental health care system.

"It's a help, but it's certainly not going to solve the problems of an underfunded system, and it keeps going back to that," Miller said. "So clinics throughout the state are struggling and will probably continue to struggle until some changes are made."

Financial pressures forced Omni House, a mental health care provider in Anne Arundel for 20 years, to close its clinic for children and adolescents, and its substance abuse clinic. Miller said the two closed clinics lost more than $20,000 a month during the last several months they were in operation.

240 patients affected

The closings affected 240 patients, most of whom were referred to other treatment programs in the county. Omni House still provides services through its outpatient mental health clinic and psychiatric rehabilitation program.

Miller said Omni House plans to move the psychiatric day program from its Third Avenue site to Omni's other space on Hospital Drive, a move she estimates will save about $100,000 a year.

The mental health care provider has been working with a consultant for the past few months to improve staff efficiency and collect insurance co-payments more quickly.

"My feeling is that Omni House is going to be OK, as long as we can get paid for services," Miller said.

Mental health advocates said short-term economic fixes such as the $49,000 payment to Omni House are only part of the answer to keeping community-based mental health clinics open.

In the past few years, 13 clinics across the state have closed, according to the Community Behavioral Health Association of Maryland, which represents 49 community mental health programs.

Advocates say the survival of public mental health services depends on adequate funding for public mental health services. Since 1997, the number of patients in the system has grown from 50,000 to 80,000, but funding has not kept pace.

"We need to look at all the clinics and realize that they're beneficial to communities, and once they're closed they're gone," said Lori Doyle, public policy director for the Community Behavioral Health Association. "And these [patients] just can't pick up and go to another side of town to get services."

Two bills fail

Proposed legislation that would have increased reimbursement rates for clinics failed in the General Assembly session that ended this month.

"The good news is that a lot of attention was paid to mental health," Doyle said. "I think key legislators on both sides were looking to do something about the problems, but it was a bad budget year. And it was also a re-election year."

One bill would have imposed a 2 percent tax on premiums collected by for-profit health maintenance organizations and used the funds to reduce community mental health clinics' budget shortfalls.

Another proposal would have covered the losses mental health clinics absorb when they treat patients eligible for both Medicaid and Medicare. Because of complex reimbursement regulations for programs covering the poor and the elderly, clinics lose 37 percent of the reimbursement rate when they treat those eligible under both programs, Doyle said.

That bill did not pass, but mental health advocates plan to ask lawmakers to persuade the state Department of Health and Mental Hygiene to cover clinics' losses for such patients.

"We're asking now and praying that our legislative friends exert some pressure to do this anyway," Doyle said. "This will help keep clinics from falling over the edge. They're on the edge of the cliff right now."

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