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Top of Mind: Pilot program will target root cause of mental health treatment gaps and delays

Focus on Mental Health Part 3
Pilot program will target root cause of mental health treatment gaps and delays
Published: Mar. 17, 2022 at 6:28 PM EDT
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WILMINGTON, N.C. (WECT) - In the midst of a national mental health crisis, everyone has their own story.

A UNCW student involuntarily committed after a suicide attempt. A mother forced to call 911 on their mentally ill child in crisis. Even the officers that answer the call share in the collective struggle of getting people proper help.

The first installment of the Focus on Mental Health special explained efforts to improve how law enforcement transports people suffering from mental illness.

The second installment unpacked the decades old problem of North Carolina’s shortage of psych beds, that often results in behavioral health patients sitting in the ER for days on end waiting to be moved to an inpatient facility.

The legislative battle wages on to find more funding to increase the number of inpatient psychiatric beds.

Trillium Health has restarted Crisis Intervention Training classes this week to give law enforcement officers a better understanding of how to respond to mental health related calls.

In addition to programs that care for people in crisis, there’s also a focus on ensuring no one becomes so ill they need a bed in the first place.

The root cause of the problem runs deep and experts agree COVID-19 has just increased the need and eroded many existing safety nets.

“There’s also things in the background that have resulted from COVID like a reduction in safe housing. If you don’t have affordable, safe housing and you already are psychiatrically unstable, that can result in a more acute psychiatric emergency. Food resources have decreased, access to medical care is decreased,” said PAMH psychologist Hillary Faulk Vaughan.

Addressing those social determinants of health is the aim for a first of its kind program that kicked off this week called the Healthy Opportunities Pilot (HOP).

Community Care of the Lower Cape Fear is leading one of three networks that were granted access to $650 million in Medicaid funding to coordinate with 29 trusted service providers and existing nonprofits to deliver non-medical services to Medicaid recipients living with two chronic conditions.

Beneficiaries from Bladen, Brunswick, Columbus, New Hanover, Onslow and Pender counties are included in Community Care of the Lower Cape Fear’s umbrella.

It’s divided into three phases: The first one includes food service and rolled out Tuesday. This spring they will launch service efforts that tackle housing and personal safety needs. The Healthy Opportunities Pilot is slated to run for the next two years, and there’s already talk of expanding the program into 2026.

“We want to really look at how can we provide whole healthcare for any individual, and that includes mental health?” said Cape Fear HOP program Director Sarah Ridout. ”It can be food boxes, it could be fruit and vegetable prescriptions, it could involve diabetes prevention programs, helping people in that particular space. And housing... it could be first and last month’s rent.”

The pilot is rooted in data showing better access to these critical resources results in healthier people, less strain on the ER, and healthcare savings for everyone.

Data will be collected to evaluate the program’s progress. If the Healthy Opportunities Pilot proves to be effective, the state will consider scaling it to be available for all Medicaid beneficiaries. Organizers say it has the potential to become a steady funding stream to eliminate barriers that could forever change the lives of the most vulnerable, and have a lasting impact on the nonprofits and service agencies that support needy community members.

“This affects everyone in our community. Whether you see it every day in the community like we do, or if you see it on a newscast like this,” said Faulk-Vaughan. “Everybody can do something, whether you take this information that we talked about and share it with your neighbor, whether you help a local food bank, whether you go out and hammer nails at Habitat for Humanity. When you do all that, you help these individuals, who are very vulnerable, access resources that can help keep them out of the hospital.”

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