The Covington News - - Local news sarah noel anderson carolyn loyd herrin -

through an in­ves­ti­ga­tion last year by the At­lanta Jour­nalCon­sti­tu­tion.

“The men­tal health sys­tem in Ge­or­gia is both over-uti­lized and un­der­funded,” said Kevin Bloye, spokesper­son for the Ge­or­gia Hospi­tal As­so­ci­a­tion. “There’s not enough dol­lars in the sys­tem to meet the de­mand and there’s a short­age of health care work­ers so the sys­tem is re­ally in a cri­sis stage.”

The back­log of men­tal health pa­tients is an ad­di­tional bur­den on NMC’s al­ready strained ER.

“Al­most ev­ery night, ev­ery day we have men­tal health pa­tients com­ing through,” said Valen­tine.

Typ­i­cally the New­ton County Sher­riff’s Of­fice will bring in­di­vid­u­als who they be­lieve to be in need of spe­cial­ized treat­ment to the hospi­tal’s ER where they are med­i­cally cleared and given a men­tal health as­sess­ment. If the con­tracted coun­selor de­ter­mines they need to be placed in a men­tal health fa­cil­ity, GRH is con­tacted and a bed re­served and they are trans­ported from the ER, typ­i­cally within the same day, ac­cord­ing to Valen­tine.

“We would rarely have pa­tients that would stay more than four to six hours,” Valen­tine said.

Bill Do­mini­cali, clin­i­cal di­rec­tor for the ER, es­ti­mated that the hospi­tal is now do­ing be­tween 70 and 80 men­tal health eval­u­a­tions a month.

In part be­cause of the fed­eral in­ves­ti­ga­tion into GRH and other state men­tal hos­pi­tals, a cap has now been placed on the num­ber of pa­tients that can oc­cupy a men­tal health in­sti­tu­tion at any one time

Wait times are now much longer for men­tal health pa­tients in need of place­ment. While they are wait­ing for a bed to be­come avail­able at GRH, pa­tients re­main in the ER where they must be su­per­vised at all times be­cause of the threat they could pose to them­selves and oth­ers said Valen­tine. Due to over­crowd­ing, some pa­tients have had to be moved to the ra­di­ol­ogy depart­ment.

“It’s dif­fi­cult be­cause if you move them, they have to have one-on-one care [and are] un­der to­tal sur­veil­lance the whole time,” Valen­tine said. “We have to place th­ese pa­tients in spe­cial rooms where they can­not harm them­selves. We’ve had to hire ex­tra se­cu­rity guards to sit out­side those rooms.”

Do­mini­cali said the time men­tal health pa­tients spend in the ER be­fore a bed is found for them at GRH is now about 48 hours.

“It’s not a good sit­u­a­tion for the pa­tient and it’s not a good sit­u­a­tion for us, es­pe­cially when they’re hav­ing some type of psy­chi­atric episode,” Valen­tine said.

The back­log in men­tal health pa­tients has meant there are times when there are not enough beds for the acutely ill com­ing into the ER Valen­tine said. A triage sys­tem to de­ter­mine who the sick­est pa­tients are is in place but other pa­tients that come in with a fever or a se­vere cold may have to wait a lit­tle longer than be­fore for a bed, she said.

Mag­gie Shelby, deputy di­rec­tor for clin­i­cal ser­vices with the Gwin­nett Rock­dale New­ton Com­mu­nity Ser­vice Board, said all GRN com­mu­nity men­tal health ser­vices have been af­fected by the prob­lems at GRH. Psy­chi­atric pa­tients are also crowd­ing into the ERs of hos­pi­tals in Gwin­nett and Rock­dale coun­ties, she said.

“We’re sort of here at the ground level and we’re deal­ing with the is­sue that if there are no beds, folks can’t get in,” Shelby said. “Emer­gency rooms can’t just turn some­body out es­pe­cially if they have a le­gal re­quire­ment at that point.”

“It’s a huge prob­lem statewide, there’s no ques­tion about it,” said Bloye of the Ge­or­gia Hospi­tal As­so­ci­a­tion. “Without the men­tal health is­sue, hos­pi­tals are al­ready fac­ing over­crowd­ing.”

Bloye said as the state’s pop­u­la­tion con­tin­ues to in­crease so does the num­ber of psy­chi­atric pa­tients need­ing spe­cial­ized at­ten­tion.

In Au­gust, Gov. Sonny Per­due an­nounced a plan to re­form the state’s men­tal health sys­tem that would in­clude re­or­ga­ni­za­tion of state so­cial ser­vices. The plan could also in­clude the con­sol­i­da­tion of men­tal health ser­vices and the pri­va­ti­za­tion of some men­tal health hos­pi­tals, ac­cord­ing to an ar­ti­cle in the AJC.

The gov­er­nor’s plan will need to be ap­proved by the Ge­or­gia Leg­is­la­ture. Bloye said GHA has not yet taken a po­si­tion on the plan.

“We’re await­ing more de­tails on the plan for pri­va­ti­za­tion,” Bloye said.

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