Appearing in the Portland Press Herald March 10, 2010
South Portland - Some mental health clinics and hospitals in southern and coastal Maine think they have found a way to survive chronic cutbacks in state and federal funding: together.
With more state budget reductions in the works, some care providers are combining payroll and other administrative functions to save money. The new collaborative, called Maine Mental Health Partners, also hopes to improve the quality of care by sharing its members' expertise and experience.
"It's providing some cost savings that, quite frankly, help us stay in business," said Leslie Brancato, chief executive officer of Community Counseling Center in Portland. "I don't know that Community Counseling Center would have survived with the kind of cuts coming out of Augusta."
Brancato's center joined the partnership last year and expects to reduce its administrative costs about 10 percent, or $500,000 a year, she said.
Maine Mental Health Partners formed in 2008, when MaineHealth, the nonprofit that owns Maine Medical Center and several other hospitals, decided to combine administrative functions for some of its mental health services, and to collaborate on care.
Now, along with MaineHealth-owned providers such as Spring Harbor Hospital in Westbrook, the partnership includes two independent agencies: Community Counseling Center and Mid-Coast Mental Health Center in Rockland. Two more independent agencies are expected to join soon.
"The resources are shrinking and we all need to be thinking about ways to become more efficient," said Dennis King, chief executive officer of Maine Mental Health Partners.
King said he also hopes the collaboration translates into better care for patients as the partners work together to fill gaps in service and discuss how they respond to various illnesses.
"The mental health care field has not been characterized by having good connections between providers, and we're trying to help change that," King said.
Maine Mental Health Partners, a subsidiary of MaineHealth, has about 50 employees at its office in South Portland. They provide administrative services such as payroll, billing, insurance reimbursements, human resources and computer support.
The consolidation of services led to layoffs last year at Community Counseling Center, although some of the affected workers are now employed by Maine Mental Health Partners, Brancato said.
The savings, on the other hand, have allowed the agency to keep counseling and treating about 6,000 patients a year, she said.
"Nine years ago, we received $1.3 million a year in state general fund contracts, in addition to a much higher Medicaid reimbursement rate for people who had Medicaid," Brancato said. "That's now under $300,000 as a result of the difficulties the state is having."
Reduced funding means some Mainers with depression and other conditions put off care or wait weeks to see a counselor, said King. As a result, more people are getting sicker, sometimes losing jobs and homes and ultimately seeking more expensive help in emergency rooms and inpatient hospitals.
Some of the increase in emergency room visits over the past few years may be linked to financial distress and job losses, said Dr. Gerard Robinson, chief medical officer for Spring Harbor Hospital and chief of psychiatry at Maine Medical Center.
"There's no question that (the weak economy) adds stress to people's lives and obviously can result in some cases of severe mental health problems," he said. "The irony is you see a decline in services that might help people cope with some of these things."
Maine lawmakers are finalizing a new list of spending cuts to close a $360 million shortfall in the state's budget. Mental health services are among the programs facing cuts, although revenue projections announced last week mean the reductions will probably not be as severe as originally feared.
The Baldacci administration, for example, is proposing to restore a potential 10 percent cut in Medicaid reimbursements for outpatient services, said Brenda Harvey, commissioner of the Department of Health and Human Services. The DHHS also hopes to provide $650,000 for housing vouchers to help mental health patients stay in their homes and out of emergency rooms.
But many people are waiting for services, she said, and funding will continue to present problems for mental health care providers in Maine. Collaborations such as Maine Mental Health Partners may help agencies continue to treat patients, she said.
"We have to do our business in a different way," Harvey said. "We're going to continue to have people who need services and we're going to continue to have budget restrictions."
MAINE MENTAL HEALTH PARTNERS
BELFAST, ROCKLAND: Mid-Coast Mental Health Center
PORTLAND: Community Counseling Center
SCARBOROUGH: Integrated Behavioral Healthcare
WESTBROOK: Spring Harbor Hospital, Spring Harbor Community Services
By John Richardson, Staff Writer, 791-6324 or at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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