Funding Policy Public health psychiatry Seattle Systems

Crisis Care Centers Aren’t Enough.

The Tacoma News Tribune graciously agreed to publish an opinion piece an esteemed fellow psychiatrist and I wrote. I invite you to read the 500-word essay, Crisis care centers are important. But WA needs more to fill behavioral health gaps, directly through the newspaper (and show a local newspaper some appreciation through page views!). The piece has particular relevance to residents in King County in Washington State.

If you have more time and would like to read the original version, you can find it below. Thanks for your interest.

King County voters will decide whether to fund a network of crisis care centers in April. There are many reasons to support this: We all know people who have experienced behavioral health crises, including kids in school; colleagues at work; family members; and people we encounter in the community.

Because King County currently has only one crisis center, additional centers will help. However, the entire behavioral health system in Washington is in crisis. A narrow focus on these centers only may lead to even more people tumbling into crisis.

King County has explained that these five crisis centers will “provide a safe place… specifically designed, equipped and staffed for behavioral health urgent care. These Centers will provide immediate mental health and substance use treatment and promote long-term recovery.”

If crisis centers have the most resources, they will be the most robust and responsive element of the system. Outpatient clinics providing earlier intervention and prevention services are often understaffed and have waitlists. People already enrolled in these clinics may wait weeks to months for follow-up appointments. Those leaving hospitals also compete for clinic appointments. This excessive waiting can precipitate crises. People should not have to be in crisis to access care.

Crisis care centers are designed to accept anyone, with or without insurance. Many behavioral health clinics have insurance restrictions. Some clinics don’t accept public insurances like Medicaid or Medicare. Others do, though have limited funds to provide services for uninsured people or for those ineligible to obtain insurance. Such restrictions will funnel uninsured people to the crisis centers. Yet, where will they go for ongoing care?

Due to limited resources, crisis care centers must screen and triage referrals. If people experiencing symptoms related to mental illness or substance use don’t meet criteria for admission to a crisis center or a hospital, what then? If under-resourced outpatient clinics remain understaffed or close, these individuals will be forced to wait for treatment. Their symptoms may worsen, precipitating preventable crises, which no one wants.

The option for people to stay up to 14 days in a crisis care center can help people connect to ongoing services. However, many agencies are unable to see people and establish care within 14 days, in part due to what King County described as: “The behavioral health workforce is strained under the magnitude of the need, all while being underpaid, overworked, and stretched too thin.”

The levy touts the use of peer counselors in crisis centers. Peers with lived experience are valuable, though should not be the primary providers of care. Peer counselors often have the lowest wages and, in some for-profit models, make up the bulk of personnel, presumably to maximize revenue. Some people in crisis are among the most vulnerable, ill, and complex patients in the region. Both patients and staff across the entire continuum of care deserve sufficient support and resources to get, and stay, out of crisis. If people experiencing mental health crises receive insufficient services, they are more likely to fall back into crisis and return to these centers. If these crisis centers are operated by for-profit organizations, readmissions will increase their revenue. We have already witnessed this pattern in several for-profit psychiatric hospitals where patients experienced harm. Patients and their families deserve better.

King County needs crisis centers, but personnel in other parts of the system also need support. The levy notes that funding for residential treatment facilities will focus on capital and maintenance. Building conditions are important, though the staff who work in these buildings are just as valuable. Many individuals receive ongoing care in residential treatment facilities following acute hospital treatment. Supporting and retaining staff in these residential programs are vital in reducing behavioral health crises.

Outpatient clinics with robust funding for personnel, technology, and other resources, along with appropriate reimbursement of services—things that never happened after the original deinstitutionalization movement of the 1960s—will help people access care. This, along with preventative efforts and early intervention at the first signs of behavioral health challenges, decreases crises.

Ultimately, supporting peoples’ basic needs will reduce the need for crisis centers. Living wages, affordable housing, access to food, universal health care coverage, employment opportunities, education and training, and building social connections, will reduce psychological burdens and promote wellness. 

This levy should be viewed as an initial investment in improving our battered behavioral health care system. More needs to be done to improve the mental health of our friends, family, and neighbors. 

Funding Homelessness Nonfiction NYC Policy Reflection Seattle Systems

God’s Work versus Meaningful Work versus Value.

Every now and then, when some people learn what kind of work I do, they say, “You’re doing God’s work. Thank you.”

They mean well, so I accept the compliment, though I also tack on, “I also like what I do. It’s meaningful work for me.”

So many of the people I see, whether in my current job or in my past jobs working in other underserved communities, have a lot going on that psychiatry and medicine cannot formally address. One example is housing. It is often an effective intervention for the distress of people who don’t have a place to live, though housing is not something physicians can prescribe. However, there are individuals who are eligible for housing, but do not want to move into housing for reasons that do not make sense to most people. For example, in New York I worked with a man who would spend his days sitting in front of the building where he once worked before he became ill. He talked to himself and burned through multiple packs of cigarettes. He did not recognize how soiled his clothes and skin became with time. At night he disappeared into the subway tunnels and rode the trains. He did not want to move into an apartment until he was able to get his job back, even though he hadn’t worked there in over ten years. With time (nearly two years!) and unrelenting attention, our team was able to persuade him to try living indoors. He eventually accepted the key and moved in.

There are other active conditions that I do not have the skills to treat: Sometimes it’s institutional racism; sometimes it’s multiple generations of poverty. Both prevent people from accessing education, housing, and other resources. Do some of these individuals end up taking psychotropic medications due to the consequences of these systemic conditions? Yes. Do I think they’re always indicated? No.

Most of my jobs have been unconventional: I worked on an Assertive Community Treatment team that often provided intensive psychiatric services in people’s homes. I worked with a homeless outreach team and did most of my clinical work in alleys, under bridges, and in public parks. I worked in a geriatric adult home and saw people either in my office, which was literally the storage room for the recreational therapist’s stuff, or in their apartments if they were uncomfortable seeing me in the storage room. I was recruited to create and lead the programming for a new crisis center whose goal was to divert people from jails and emergency departments.

And now I work in a jail.

As time progresses, it has become clear to me that I have not had the typical career for a psychiatrist. I like that. However, I often also feel out of touch with my colleagues. I believe that they are all trying their best, but they don’t have the time to see how systems end up failing the most vulnerable and ill in our communities. They work in the ivory towers of academia and don’t seem to realize the dearth of resources—financial, administrative, academic—in the community. They work in private practice and don’t seem to realize how ill some people are and how we need their expertise. They work in psychiatric hospitals and seem to believe that some of these individuals will never get better when, in fact, they do.

Because much of my work has been outside of the traditional system, I consider myself fortunate that I have been able to escape the box of simply prescribing medications. Many of the individuals under my care do not want to take medications. Their desire to not take medications, though, doesn’t stop us from working with them. We meet them where they are at and remember that they are, first, people. As we are in the profession of helping people shift their thoughts, emotions, and behaviors, we believe that there will come a time—maybe soon, but maybe not for weeks, months, or years—that something will change. Just getting someone to talk to us becomes the essential task. This is true whether someone is in a jail cell, living in a cardboard box under a bridge, or residing in a studio apartment.

Should systems pay psychiatrists to do this work? Maybe it’s not “cost effective” because of its “low return on investment”. After all, this task of “building rapport” means psychiatrists aren’t working “at the top of their licenses”. If a psychiatrist is able to get people to talk to her and help them shift their behaviors, whether or not that involves medications, does that have value?

Does the psychiatrist’s efforts have value if it helps the “system” save money?

Is there value if it reduces the suffering of these individuals who have had to deal with police officers, jails, and living on the streets due to a psychiatric condition?

Perhaps my idealism blinds me. One of my early mentors in New York City often said, “I want the guy who lives under the Manhattan Bridge to have a psychiatrist who is as good as, if not better than, the psychiatrist who has a private practice on Fifth Avenue.” I couldn’t agree more.

Consult-Liaison Education Funding Medicine Policy Systems

The Value of Psychiatrists.

While slogging through a crappy first draft of a document about the value of psychiatrists in mental health and substance use disorder services, I did a literature search for supporting evidence.

I found nothing.[1. Physicians, as a population, don’t advocate for ourselves as much as we should because we’re “too busy taking care of patients”. This is true. However, our busy-ness creates a vacuum where non-physicians step in and make decisions for us. We then express resentment that we have to follow the edicts of people who have never done the work. If we did a better job of regulating and advocating for ourselves, we might not be in this position.]

“So how exactly are we helpful?” I mused out loud. Maybe we aren’t: There are groups out there who do not believe that psychiatrists can or do help anyone.

I am an N of 1. Therefore, this post is an anecdote, not evidence. Nonetheless:

Psychiatrists provide psychiatric services. These are increasingly limited to only medication management, which is unfortunate. Psychiatrists need psychotherapy skills—or, abilities to connect with people to build trusting and respectful relationships—to do effective medication management. I can write dozens of prescriptions and change doses as much as I want, but if the person I am working with doesn’t trust me, none of my tinkering matters.

When people think about medication management, they often think only of adding medications or exchanging one for another. Medication management also includes helping people come off of medications. This “deprescribing” also requires the use of psychotherapy skills: Some people feel great discomfort when coming off of medications. Sometimes the reasons are physiological; sometimes they’re psychological. Psychotherapeutic interventions and education are necessary in helping people cope with and overcome these discomforts.[2. For any psychiatrists out there: You could build an entire practice around “deprescribing”. This is one of the most common clinical requests I receive through my blog. I don’t have a private practice, so I turn all these people away. To be clear, deprescribing isn’t limited to private practices; I deprescribe in my clinical work in the jail.]

Psychiatrists often have the most clinical expertise. Most have had exposure to the spectrum of psychiatric services (in residency training) and thus have perspective about how systems work (or fail). Thus, psychiatrists can provide clinical consultation about specific patients and program design, implementation, and improvement. One example is the use of medication assisted treatment for substance use disorders. Certain programs or agencies may believe in abstinence only and will view medications as another misused substance. That perspective is not invalid, though giving people more options may help someone reach the goal of abstinence.

Psychiatrists can provide education to other staff to improve their clinical skills, which can elevate the quality of care clients receive across the agency. Psychiatrists can also provide leadership and influence the direction and ethos of a clinical service. For example, you can imagine how a psychiatrist might influence a service if he believes that the only way to help patients is to convince them to take psychotropic medications forever. A different psychiatrist who believes that employment or housing may be more effective than medication for some patients would provide a different influence.

Psychiatrists can triage patients who are in crisis. A roving psychiatrist on the streets or visiting people in their homes often can’t do things like draw blood, but they can assess people and circumstances to determine whether a visit to the emergency department can be avoided. Psychiatrists can also provide strong advocacy: Psychiatrists can work with law enforcement so that people who would be better served in a hospital actually go to the hospital, and not to jail. Similarly, if someone who has a significant psychiatric condition requires medical attention, psychiatrists can talk with hospital staff to advocate for this. Too many of us have stories about our patients who needed medical interventions, but others thought their symptoms were entirely due to psychiatric conditions.

Psychiatrists go through medical training and often have ongoing contact with other medical specialties. They are thus familiar with the practical realities of communication about and coordination of care for patients across systems. While overcoming the financial and policy hurdles to integrate care are important, the reason why integration matters (or, at least why I hope it matters) is to improve the experience for the patient. Administrators should consider the interaction and experience between the physician and the patient as paramount. The system should not sacrifice that relationship to make administration easier.

This is the message that all physicians, psychiatrists or otherwise, need to communicate to administrators. We don’t do ourselves any favors by assuming that people know what value we bring to patients or to the system. Sometimes it also helps to remind ourselves, too, so we can improve our work for the people we serve.

Education Funding Policy Systems

Jail Costs versus Hospital Costs.

We received the State of Washington Voters’ Pamphlet in the mail today. One of the initiatives, I-1401, concerns “trafficking of animal species threatened with extinction”.

Have no fear: This post is unrelated to trafficking of animal species threatened with extinction.

The “Fiscal Impact Statement” includes a statement about jail costs (highlighted for emphasis):


“No wonder why people with psychiatric conditions end up in jail!” I exclaimed. “It’s so much cheaper for them to be there!”

Information about hospital costs are public. This page shares inpatient hospital rates for people who have Medicaid insurance in August 2015. All the hospitals in Washington State are listed in the leftmost column. One of the columns has the title “Psych_ Per Diem”. That column tells you how much money each hospital is paid if a patient with Medicaid is admitted there for psychiatric reasons. First, you will note that hospitals are paid[1. Forgive the passive voice when I write “hospitals are paid”. In Washington, hospitals send bills for Medicaid patients to the state. The state pays the hospital bill. The state then turns around and sends a bill to the region that the patient “belongs” to. The region then pays that state bill. The region gets money to pay that bill from a mix of federal and state Medicaid dollars, which ultimately come from taxpayers. Confusing, right?] different amounts. That alone is fascinating—what accounts for that? who decides how much money each hospital will receive?

More to the point, it costs anywhere between $711.55 and $1788.93 per day for an adult with Medicaid to stay in a hospital. The average cost of incarceration in Washington is $88 per day. Thus, it is at least eight times cheaper for someone to stay in jail than in a psychiatric hospital.[2. This page shares inpatient hospital rates for people who don’t have any insurance. Note that the rates are lower compared to the Medicaid rates. They are nonetheless still much higher than the daily jail rate.]

On the one hand, the differences in cost aren’t surprising: Hospitals often have more staff, equipment, and services. On the other hand, we also know that jails are often the largest psychiatric hospitals in any given region. For example, in Seattle, the jail has about 120 psychiatric beds. The largest psychiatric hospital in Seattle has about 61 beds.

I really want to believe that no one intentionally designed the system this way. Surely no person or system could be so heinous and miserly to funnel people into jail instead of a psychiatric hospital. Right?


But, then the disgust kicks in: What if the costs were reversed? What if it cost $88 a day for someone to stay in a psychiatric hospital and $712 a day for someone to stay in a jail? Would we see as many people with psychiatric conditions in jail? Of course not.[3. To be clear, we should also help people stay out of psychiatric hospitals, too. Inpatient services should be available if people need them, but let’s focus on prevention and help people stay in their communities. Being in a hospital generally sucks.]

It shouldn’t be all about money, but when the cost differences are that big, money has undue weight. If we actually want to help people with psychiatric conditions, we must pay for services. Otherwise, we will only see more and more of them in jail.

Education Funding Homelessness Observations Policy Systems

Asylums are not the Answer.

The New York Times recently featured an op-ed from a psychiatrist, Dr. Montross, who argues for the return of the asylum.

I understand her frustrations: I have worked with homeless individuals in both New York and Seattle who, if they were in psychiatric institutions, would not have had to worry as much about their safety, getting food, or sleeping at night. Many of the patients I now see in jail should undoubtedly be in a psychiatric institution (though not necessarily for a long period of time).

However, I disagree with her assertion that we should return to the era of the asylum.

President Kennedy signed the Community Mental Health Act into law in 1963. The goal of this legislation was to move people out of long-term psychiatric institutions, such as state hospitals, and help them integrate into the community by enrolling them in outpatient services. This is what “deinstitutionalization” refers to.

The Community Mental Health Act, however, only provided funds for the construction of the community mental health centers. The law made no provisions to fund the services that would occur in these buildings.

What we see now—the “transinstitutionalization” of people with severe psychiatric conditions into homelessness and jails—is a consequence of this lack of funding and support for patient care services.

Think of it this way: A city wants to improve its public transportation system. The city passes a law that provides funds to buy a lot of buses. However, the law provides no money to hire and retain bus drivers. There is also no money to hire and retain mechanics for bus maintenance.

The people of the city are frustrated: “Our public transportation system sucks! The city should build a subway system!”

The bus system never got a fair chance.

We also moved away from asylum care for good reasons: Conditions in psychiatric institutions were often terrible. It was not uncommon for state psychiatric hospitals to have insufficient staff for the number of patients in the institution. In Alabama in 1970, one psychiatric institution had one physician for every 350 patients, one nurse for every 250 patients and one psychiatrist for every 1,700 patients.

Dr. Montross herself notes (emphases mine):

But as a result, my patients with chronic psychotic illnesses cycle between emergency hospitalizations and inadequate outpatient care. They are treated by community mental health centers whose overburdened psychiatrists may see even the sickest patients for only 20 minutes every three months.[2. Unfortunately, 20-minute appointments every three months for the sickest patients is also a common occurrence here in Washington.]

If that is the quality and quantity of care “the sickest patients” in outpatient settings receive, then of course “many patients struggle with homelessness” and “many are incarcerated.”

Dr. Montross calls for “modern” asylums, though it is unclear to me what incentives government has at this time to build and support institutions that “would be nothing like the one in ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest'”. Asylums from years past did not receive sufficient funding to provide adequate care. Current outpatient centers often do not receive enough funding to provide adequate care. (How much longer must we wait before this changes?)

To be clear, I do believe there is a role for asylums in patient care. There is a small segment of the population with severe symptoms who would benefit from care in an institution. I’m talking about people who keep trying to jump off of buildings because they believe they can fly. Or people who cannot stop smashing their heads against the wall because they are trying to dislodge the computer chip they believe is in their heads. Or the people who eat their own feces and literally cannot use words to explain why.[1. As I have noted before: If you do not believe that these scenarios actually happen, I encourage you to volunteer at your local emergency department.] These individuals can and do recover; they are not necessarily destined to spend the rest of their lives in an asylum.

We also now have interventions such as assertive community treatment, assisted outpatient treatment[3. Assisted outpatient treatment is controversial, though preliminary data support its use. You can read an admittedly biased summary about it here.], and supportive housing/housing first. There is evidence that these intensive outpatient services keep people in the community and out of psychiatric institutions. What would happen if government and communities supported these interventions?

Modern psychiatric services—in an asylum or elsewhere—will not be modern at all if there are not enough staff to provide care for patients. It also will not be modern if the staff do not receive ongoing training and supervision for the care they provide. It cannot be modern if administrators do not understand the work and are unwilling to provide financial, technical, and emotional support to the front-line staff.

We must get away from the idea that where people receive services is more important than the quality of those services.