House committee leaders lament the health department’s slow progress on behavioral health reforms – Maryland Matters

The leadership of the House Health and Government Operations Committee criticized the Maryland Department of Health on Wednesday afternoon for its lack of progress in addressing the state’s behavioral health crisis. Screenshot by Hannah Gaskill.

The leadership of the House Health and Government Operations Committee criticized the Maryland Department of Health on Wednesday afternoon for what they saw as the agency’s slow approach to addressing mental health policy.

“I’m totally disheartened,” said committee chair Shane E. Pendergrass (D-Howard).

Pendergrass highlighted a number of issues, including an increased need for services due to the COVID-19 pandemic, setbacks on reimbursements for telehealth services and the slow development of a program that would speed up patient referrals. to psychiatric beds.

Wait times for treatment for mental health crises can be long, leaving many people languishing in hospital emergency departments for hours, sometimes even weeks.

According to Erin Dorrien, policy director for the Maryland Hospital Association, a 2019 study of 29 hospitals found that 4,748 people presented to the emergency room for behavioral health services over a 45-day period. More than 40% of these patients experienced a delay in referral to their next level of treatment, with an overwhelming number of waits for a bed in a mental health care facility.

Of the. Joseline Peña-Melnyk (D-Prince George’s). Photo by Danielle E. Gaines.

A 2020 bill sponsored by House Health and Government Operations Vice President Joseline A. Peña-Melnyk (D-Anne Arundel and Prince George’s) sought to change that.

Under the 2020 legislation, the Maryland Department of Health is to create a searchable database of treatment spaces available to all mental health care providers, as well as an electronic system for all health care providers. can use for references.

According to the bill, a directory of resources on mental health care must be developed and accessible by December 1, 2021. On the same date, a pilot program for the registry and referral system, as well as a plan to expand it statewide, is underway. must operate in at least two jurisdictions.

“This is a major IT project with an initial estimated cost of around $ 6 million over two years,” said Dr Aliya Jones, deputy secretary of the Department of Health’s Behavioral Health Administration.

She said funding for the technical construction of the program would not be available until 2023, exceeding the deadline for Peña-Melnyk’s legislation.

Steve Kolbe, of the health ministry’s information technology department, said he expects a “full implementation” of the system by March 31, 2024, but added the date could change based on the ability to fully implement the requirements of the legislation.

Peña-Melnyk asked panel members what Marylanders in crisis are supposed to do in the meantime, noting that she has received calls from voters whose children have spent up to seven weeks in the emergency room awaiting their next one. level of mental health care.

According to Dorrien, more than half of the patients seen in the 2019 study did not require hospitalization in a hospital, “further illustrating the need for more appropriate alternative destinations to help patients facing health crises. behavioral not to end up in the emergency room. in the first place, ”she said.

Jones suggested finding better ways to deal with people in crisis in the community, citing the Greater Baltimore Regional Integrated Crisis System plan as an example: Last year, the Maryland Health Services Cost Review Commission approved $ 45 million. grant dollars to Baltimore-area hospitals to expand mental health and addiction services through a hotline, crisis units and expanded walk-in clinics.

The money, which comes from the state’s pricing system, started flowing at the start of this year and will last until December 31, 2025.

But this answer did not suit Pendergrass.

“The fact that it’s taking so long – not just the bed register but everything else that the ministry doesn’t seem to be solving – maybe you’re making slow progress, but at the same time making it worse, just put it”, Pendergrass said of the Department of Health.

The committee chairman also pointed to a general policy of the Hogan administration not to testify for or against bills during the legislative session as a possible source of delays.

“The legislature can pass a number of laws, but when it takes five to seven years to implement a law, something is wrong,” Pendergrass said. “Maybe it’s because the department is not participating in our hearing process, they prefer to wait until we pass the bill before making any comments.”

“If we had had more input from the department during the process of this bill, perhaps we could have made it work faster,” she continued. “I can’t say we could have, but I would like to think we could have.”

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