Appearing in the Portland Press Herald
Portland - When patients at Community Counseling Center need a consultation with a psychiatrist, finding an available doctor for them can be a challenge. The nonprofit agency is too small to afford its own psychiatrist, and it doesn't need one full time, anyway.
But soon the center's staff will have access to the state's largest pool of psychiatrists. On Friday, the small agency on Forest Avenue announced that it is the first to join Maine Mental Health Partners, a new nonprofit subsidiary of MaineHealth that is working to connect mental health agencies in 11 Maine counties.
Two years in the making, Maine Mental Health Partners is designed to make services in the state more efficient and less costly by bringing community agencies and MaineHealth hospitals that provide mental care under one umbrella.
The new organization, announced earlier this week, will share administrative services such as accounting and payroll with the community agencies that join it, as well as offering them greater group purchasing power for essentials such as energy and insurance coverage. In addition to saving money on operating costs, participants will also gain access to a whole new network of health care professionals for their clients and a common standard of care.
"Right now, a parent (of a youth needing mental health services) might literally sometimes be trying to call this place and that place," said Leslie Clark Brancato, president and CEO of Community Counseling Center. "It's hard enough to negotiate the system if you're not in crisis. But if you're in the middle of a very painful time in your life, trying to figure out which organization does which service is a very hard thing to do."
For its part, Community Counseling Center will bring services to the table that the new organization does not yet have, said Dennis King, president of Maine Mental Health Partners. "We look forward to their case management services helping youth with developmental disabilities leave the hospital sooner," he said, "or better yet, keep them from needing to be hospitalized in the first place."
The coordinated-care arrangement is expected to slash emergency room waiting times and reduce the length of hospitalizations, organizers say. The goal is to provide cost-effective care at a time when mental health agencies are watching their budgets shrink because of state cutbacks and the sour economy.
At Community Counseling Center, for example, reimbursements from MaineCare for outpatient psychotherapy have fallen by 40 percent over the past six years, Brancato said. That's on top of lost general fund revenue.
Clients coming to the counseling center won't notice much obvious change after the arrangement is finalized, Brancato said. The center will keep its name, management will remain the same, and clients will keep the same therapists they've been seeing all along.
Community mental health agencies have to pay a fee ranging from one-half of 1 percent to 1 percent of their budgets to join Maine Mental Health Partners, but it's estimated that belonging to Maine Mental Health Partners could trim their costs by about a third.
Savings in operating costs and improvements in patient care will come in part through efficiencies such as streamlining medical forms and taking advantage of electronic medical records, according to Dr. Girard Robinson, chief of psychiatry at Maine Medical Center, who will serve as vice president of medical affairs at Maine Mental Health Partners.
"Individuals sometimes get a number of assessments before they get to the level of care that they need," Robinson said. "This is a chance to eliminate some of those redundancies and to build common standards and forms, and hopefully make it much more navigable for patients and their families."
The electronic medical records will help psychiatrists keep track of exactly what medications their patients are taking, which ones they've taken in the past, and which have worked and which have not. A greater reliance on evidence-based medicine will make it easier for doctors to see how well a treatment actually worked.
Evidence-based medicine has already taken hold in the medical arena, but it has been slower to catch on in the mental health field. For certain conditions, however, there is scientific evidence that some types of therapies work better than others, such as cognitive behavioral therapy for depression.
"It's been a challenge in the mental health world to implement evidence-based models in a systemic fashion," Robinson said, "but I think we're moving quickly in that direction. And I think it's a good direction, because it's important for the taxpayers to know that they're getting quality for what they're paying for."
Carol Carothers, executive director of the Maine chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, said she hasn't yet heard all the details about Maine Mental Health Partners, but she is optimistic about the new system. "Anything that would make the incoherency of the existing system more coherent, I think is a good idea," she said.
Reported by Meredith Goad, Staff Writer, 791-6332 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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