The city is not yet ready for an inpatient mental health unit, but community leaders should be prepared to open one as the number of potential patients increases, according to a task force report released Friday.
Members of the Mental Health Task Force of the Douglas County Community Health Improvement Project officially delivered their report Friday after studying mental health issues for 13 months following closure of the inpatient unit at Lawrence Memorial Hospital.
The report's main finding could be summarized in two words: Be vigilant.
"I'm passionate about this because I lost a son to this disease," said Darryl Krape, a task force member. "I don't know if an inpatient unit would have saved him, but it would have been another option.
"As a community, we have to start planning now for the day we'll have a unit. We can't wait until we get to a crisis level and say, 'Gee, I wish we had an inpatient unit.'"
The primary recommendation of the report - delivered to the full board of the Community Health Improvement Project - is for city and county commissioners to create a permanent Douglas County Mental Health Services Planning Council.
The council would monitor statistics related to the number and type of mental health patients in the county. The group would be responsible for alerting community leaders when patient numbers rise to the level that an inpatient mental health unit would be feasible.
The report, though, gives no timeline on when that may occur. The report estimates about 15 patients per day are needed to operate a full-functioning unit. When LMH closed its unit in 2004, it was serving an average of less than two patients per day, though it only was accepting patients ages 55 and older. When it is was a full-service unit, it had about eight patients per day as recently as 2002.
LMH President and CEO Gene Meyer said he welcomed a new group that would compile Douglas County statistics related to mental health. But he cautioned that reopening a unit would require more than just adequate patient numbers.
"Finding staff for a unit is challenging," Meyer said. "I think that is what we're finding around the country. More and more physicians are choosing to do nonhospital work."
Meyer said - and the report agreed - that staffing issues were a major reason for the demise of LMH's unit. In 2003, three psychiatrists certified to admit patients to the unit resigned. Another followed suit in 2004, leaving only one psychiatrist to be on call for the unit 24 hours daily.
During the same period, new psychiatrists hired by the Bert Nash Community Mental Health Center showed no interest in also working to staff the inpatient mental health unit.
Meyer said low reimbursement rates for inpatient mental health services had caused many psychiatrists to shift their practices to only outpatient services.
In addition to compiling statistics and planning for a new unit, the eight-member mental health council would:
¢ Study how to improve the availability of current outpatient mental health services in the community to reduce the need for inpatient care.
¢ Seek ways to smooth transition of Douglas County patients being transferred to out-of-county inpatient mental health care units, often in Topeka, Kansas City or Osawatomie.
¢ Provide more "readily available" information to the public on how to access current mental health services. The report found many Douglas County residents aren't aware of how to get help for someone who is experiencing a mental health crisis.
Members of the CHIP board - which is a board of community leaders interested in health issues - will review the report in more detail at 7:30 a.m. July 14 at the Lawrence-Douglas County Health Department. The report ultimately is expected to be forwarded to city and county commissioners.
Mental health council makeup
A task force report is recommending the creation of a Douglas County Mental Health Services Planning Council. Members of that group would be: ¢ One at-large appointee from the Lawrence City Commission. ¢ One at-large appointee from the Douglas County Commission. ¢ One private mental health practitioner jointly appointed by the city and county commissions. ¢ One mental health services consumer or a consumer advocate jointly appointed by the city and county commissions. ¢ The chief executive of the Bert Nash Community Mental Health Center. ¢ The chief executive of Lawrence Memorial Hospital. ¢ The chief executive of Headquarters Counseling Center. ¢ An epidemiologist or statistician to compile and convey mental health data to the council and community.