Emergency rooms seen as best access point for mental health care

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Published Thursday, March 9, 2023
by Eric Galatas

(Colorado News Connection) A host of barriers that make it harder for people suffering from poor mental health to access preventive care has led to an increase in care delivered through emergency departments, according to a new report

Rick Doucet is the CEO of Community Reach Center, which provides mental health care in Adams County. He said lack of adequate insurance coverage can cause people to put off getting help, which can lead to deteriorating conditions.

"It's hard for people that don't have insurance or Medicaid to make that decision to be seen," said Doucet. "That's why a lot of people end up in the ERs, or they end up being picked up by law enforcement."

Numerous efforts are underway in Colorado to improve diagnosis and treatment of mental-health conditions, reduce stigma, and expand coverage and access to services. 

But according to new analysis by the Center for Improving Value in Health Care, the number of patients seen by Emergency Departments across Colorado continues to rise. 

Emergency rooms have become the most accessible option for many suffering from potentially preventable mental-health crises.

From 2016 to 2021, the number of children seeking mental-health or potential self-harm care at emergency departments increased by 158 percent. In 2021, youths accounted for one in five of these visits. 

Doucet noted that emergency rooms are not set up to provide mental-health services, and the services they can provide come at significantly higher costs.

"I mean, you walk into the ER, the dollars start adding up," said Doucet. "So it is going to increase the costs to the community, to the insurance companies, to the individual if they don't have insurance."

Anxiety, panic and major depressive disorders account for 44 percent of all mental health-related diagnoses in Colorado. 

Doucet said the state is currently looking at the possibility of funding community mental-health centers at a higher rate to help cover the potentially crippling costs of uncompensated care.

"Because if you don't cover the costs for people that don't have insurance," said Doucet, "or their insurance companies don't pay enough for the services, you can't keep your doors open, you can't serve them."

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