Tag Archives: Medicaid

Mental Illness – Fighting Stigma and Improving Access to Care

by Jennifer Swayne, Staff Attorney – Health Justice Program

On Friday, December 14, 2012, we once again faced unspeakable tragedy as a gunman broke into Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, CT and opened fire, killing a total of 28 people—20 of whom were children. While many of the initial conversations surrounding this horrible tragedy focused on the ongoing debate about gun control, very few of those conversations focused on mental illness, the stigma surrounding it, and access to mental health care services. Some news sources have reported that the gunman faced mental illness, though it is not clear what, if any, mental health services he and his family may have sought in the past.  However, what is certain is that we need to engage in dialogue on mental illness, as there are many individuals who face significant stigma and who are not able to access critical mental health services consistently.

Mental illness knows no race, culture, ethnicity, language, socioeconomic status, age, gender, or religion, yet there is stigma and overwhelming silence surrounding its impact.  Many have probably encountered someone with mental illness without even realizing it, especially since about 1 in 4 adults age 18 and over, and about 1 in 5 children age birth to 18 suffer from a diagnosable mental illness at some point in their lives.  Because of the stigma surrounding mental illness, however, we continue to miss opportunities to help others get the support and assistance they need, especially when those who exhibit signs of mental illness are simply labeled and dismissed as “crazy.”  Instead, we are relegated to hindsight assessment when it is much too late to take action.

The mass shooting that happened in Newtown is an extreme, and there is nothing that excuses the actions of the gunman.  However, mental illness is much more complex than this extreme case of violence we have witnessed suggests. For instance, people with mental illness face greater risk of becoming the victim of crime rather than being the perpetrator.  Therefore, we must be careful not to let a single person’s actions symbolize our collective understanding of how mental illness manifests and operates.

Further, we have a health care system where mental health parity has been lacking, and sadly, quality mental health services remain a luxury reserved for those who have the ability to pay in cash for those services.  The result is that those who have no insurance, those who rely on private insurance with limited mental health benefits, and those who rely on public insurance often go without needed mental health services that can help them live full and productive lives. Untreated mental illness can result in homelessness, incarceration, victimization, high burden placed on families and caretakers, and productivity loss, not to mention the financial costs of healthcare expenditures resulting directly from failure to treat mental illness sooner rather than later.

New York State is in the process of redesigning its system of behavioral health services for some of the most vulnerable people in our society—low-income children from birth to age 21 who use public insurance.  This is a group that has suffered immensely from lack of adequate mental health services. Under Medicaid, the system of mental health care for children has been overwhelmingly underfunded and the New York State systems that serve children—Department of Health (DOH), Office of Mental Health (OMH), Office of Children and Family Services (OCFS), Office of Alcoholism and Substance Abuse Services (OASAS), Department of Education (DOE)—and other agencies at the local level, have not coordinated their efforts to serve children, leading to a disjointed system.

It is promising that New York State is engaging in a process to revamp the system of care for our children, but we have to make sure that it is a system that will actually work and result in real change or else children will continue to face dire consequences and suffer from the stigma of mental illness well into adulthood.  Children with mental health problems have lower educational achievement, greater involvement with the criminal justice system and fewer stable and long-term placements in the child welfare system than their peers.  In attempts to access mental health services, publicly insured children are also more likely to rely on restrictive or costly services such as juvenile detention, residential treatment, emergency rooms, and are more likely to be placed out of their homes in order to obtain critical services, as opposed to being able to readily access outpatient services, especially if they are children of color.

On December 14, NYLPI and the Children’s Defense Fund submitted joint comments (which you can access here) regarding the critical mental health services that children need to New York’s OMH, OASAS, and OCFS.  In our comments we:

(1) address the health disparities that impact receipt of mental health care;

(2) list the services that children should receive and who should provide those services;

(3) highlight the importance of cultural and linguistic competency;

(4) discuss the need for early identification and prevention measures such as behavioral health screening; and

(5) stress the need for training and funding so that providers are able to actually provide the appropriate services.

As we can see, mental illness is complex and it is not going away.  We must proactively engage in creating a better system of care rather than responding in the aftermath of tragedy. It is vital that we have honest and ongoing conversations about the state of our society, mental illness, stigma, and access to appropriate mental health care services.

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A Community Mobilizes to End Medical Apartheid

Hello readers, we are pleased to announce that the peer-reviewed journal, Progress in Community Health Partnerships, has published a piece about our campaign with Bronx Health REACH to end segregation in the delivery of health care services by teaching hospitals in New York. You can download a copy of the piece here. Feedback welcome! We are using every avenue at our disposal to get the word out about this urgent issue, including the very types of publications that health care providers and policy decision-makers are likely to peruse.

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Acknowledging Difference, not Defeat: A Racial Justice Perspective on the Medicaid Debate

This post, by Health Justice Director Nisha Agarwal and Staff Attorney Shena Elrington, also appears on the Race-Talk blog, Huffington Post, and Alternet.

The federal Medicaid program has become something of a policy piñata in the national discourse. Over the course of the past year conservatives have been asking, “is Medicaid real health insurance?” The public insurance program for low-income individuals has been criticized for not providing sufficient access to physicians, long wait times to see a physician when one can be accessed, and poorer quality of care once patients get in the door – all of which conservatives argue are reasons to dismantle the program altogether. If being on Medicaid isn’t much better than being uninsured, why bother spending tax dollars on it?

Meanwhile, a recent editorial in the New York Times offered unequivocal praise for the Medicaid program, pointing to a study conducted in Oregon that allowed researchers to compare the experiences of people who received Medicaid coverage to those who did not. According to the study, Medicaid recipients reported better health than the uninsured recipients  and were less likely to have medical bills sent to  collection agencies or forgo other obligations in order to pay for their medical care. Supporters of the public health insurance plan were therefore able to hit back against conservative naysayers and argue that Medicaid truly is a program worth preserving and expanding.

While the national debate lurches back and forth, we find a more complicated reality on the ground, in the low-income communities of color where we work to eliminate race- and class-based biases in the health care system. The uncomfortable truth is that Medicaid beneficiaries do often receive poorer quality of health care, particularly when it comes to accessing specialists. But to see this you have to look at how Medicaid beneficiaries fare vis-à-vis privately insured individuals, not the uninsured, which has been the focus of current debates.

For example, in  our work with Bronx Health REACH, a faith-based community coalition in the Bronx, we have seen how Medicaid patients seeking specialty services at major New York City hospitals are seen in separate—effectively segregated—facilities from their privately-insured peers, with longer wait times, less experienced doctors, and much less continuity and coordination of care. (You can read more about these problems in this monograph published by the Bronx Health REACH coalition and in this complaint we filed with the New York State Attorney General.)

Working with low-income parents, we have also seen how children with Medicaid have to wait for grotesquely long periods of time before they can get mental health treatment and special education evaluations, if they are able to access these services at all, and how elite institutions providing such services refuse to serve publicly insured populations despite the significant shortage of pediatric mental health providers in New York City.

Our experience thus seems to support conservative arguments to some extent: Medicaid beneficiaries do not have sufficient access to physicians, experience long wait times to see a physician when one can be accessed, and suffer from poor quality of care once they get in the doctor’s door, at least when compared with those patients who are privately insured.

Undoubtedly the current climate surrounding Medicaid makes it difficult for advocates to point out the lower quality of care Medicaid beneficiaries receive, for fear that any criticism of the program will serve as powerful ammunition for the other side to use. But acknowledging certain aspects of the conservative argument need not mean that advocates have to accept the entirety of their conclusions. Something else we’ve learned through our work is that Medicaid isn’t “bad” insurance per se. Rather, healthcare providers and institutions choose to treat Medicaid beneficiaries badly by discriminating against them with respect to the quality of care provided. Consider the Bronx example. Hospitals in New York City (and elsewhere) are not only reimbursed by Medicaid for providing patient care, they also receive over $1 billion through the Medicaid program for non-patient purposes such as resident doctor training – a funding stream so substantial that the New York hospital industry is fighting tooth and nail to keep it safe from federal budget cuts. Medicaid seems to pay hospitals very well, and yet these same hospitals choose to provide segregated and unequal care to Medicaid beneficiaries. Why?

As with many things, these bizarre dynamics cannot be understood without accounting for race, and for the fact that the vast majority of publicly insured individuals in New York City are black and brown. We have heard how top-flight specialists want to be able to choose the patients that they treat, which is invariably code for avoiding people of color who are perceived to be more “complicated” and “non-compliant.” Elite NYC hospitals eager to attract these specialists happily comply to doctors’ demands by giving them fancy facilities to see their preferred patients, while the Medicaid patients are separated out into “clinics”, where they are treated by a rotating band of doctors-in-training.

In addition to wanting to attract renowned specialists, the hospitals want to attract the “right” kind of patients – that is, wealthy, white, suburban patients. Behind closed doors administrators will openly argue that their “‘paying’ patients will not want to sit in the same waiting room as people on Medicaid,” so it is simply better for the hospital to segregate the two groups.

Worse still, these biases become a part of the culture of how medicine is taught, with students and residents working with Medicaid patients in the clinics learning very early on that some patients—the kinds of patients they get to practice on, the poor patients of color—are less worthy than others. Indeed, research has suggested that by the end of their medical education, student doctors actually become more biased than they were when they began medical school. These biases, whether conscious or not, permeate the medical system at both an individual and systemic level, affecting the quality of care that Medicaid beneficiaries receive.

From our perspective, the debate about Medicaid is less about left-and-right and more about black and white. The conservatives’ sleight of hand is to point to quality of care problems for Medicaid beneficiaries and to jump from there to the conclusion that the Medicaid program is to blame, which obscures the mediating role that institutional racism plays in ensuring poor outcomes for Medicaid patients. Meanwhile, supporters of Medicaid effectively erase race from the debate as well by closing their eyes to the many challenges Medicaid beneficiaries face in accessing high-quality health care, despite the fact that they are walking in the door with an insurance that research shows is pretty good. A more nuanced position would acknowledge differences in care without accepting defeat. It is not the Medicaid program that must be dismantled, but the biased attitudes and policies that lead Medicaid patients to get inferior quality of care.

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New York Needs Safety Net Hospitals

Here is our op-ed on the Medicaid Redesign Team that ran in today’s Albany Times Union. Comments most welcome!

By Nisha Agarwal and Shena Elrington

Gov. Andrew Cuomo‘s Medicaid Redesign Team was handpicked by him and elected by no one. Though touted as a collection of health care “experts,” the majority of the team’s members have strong ties to special interests in the health care industry.

Not surprisingly, its proposals for cuts reflect the vested interests of its members.

Proposal 67 calls for the closing or downsizing of safety net hospitals that provide health care services in medically under-served areas. We need more health services in these communities, not less, particularly since these communities have been ravaged by hospital closures in recent years.

Central Brooklyn, with its extremely low-income and 90 percent black and Latino population, has lost two hospitals, OB-GYN and prenatal services at two other local hospitals, 13 outpatient clinics, a federally funded health center and at least two women, infants and children program centers that provide nutrition education and assistance in recent years, despite having some of the worst health outcomes in the city.

The infant mortality rate in the Brownsville section of central Brooklyn is nearly five times that of Manhattan’s Upper East Side.

Do we really need more hospitals in areas like central Brooklyn to close?

When safety net hospitals close, people are forced to travel farther to see care at the few institutions that remain open — usually elite private academic teaching centers. These are the very same institutions to which many of the Medicaid team’s members have strong connections, raising questions about the appropriateness of using the regulatory process to funnel business to special-interest groups.

What is more, proposals that would actually support safety net institutions and use public dollars in an accountable and transparent way never made it into the final Medicaid reform package.

Proposal 66, for example, would have recalibrated charity care and Medicaid dollars so that the distribution of that funding would be based on the actual Medicaid and uninsured losses. Hospitals in New York now receive “indigent care” funding regardless of the volume of care they actually provide to Medicaid and uninsured patients. So, hospitals that provide very little care to low-income New Yorkers often get more money from the indigent care pool than they deserve, while safety net institutions, which provide a lot of care to Medicaid and uninsured patients, do not get their fair share.

Recalibrating the way this funding is distributed would not only make sense and bolster the financial stability of critical safety net institutions. It also is required under federal health reform and was very favorably ranked through the Medicaid Redesign Team’s own scoring process. Yet, the proposal never made it into the team’s final recommendations.

New York is in the midst of an epic budget crisis. Medicaid is seen as the linchpin to solving that crisis. But its redesign should not be done in such a way as to threaten the very institutions that serve as a safety net for our state’s most vulnerable residents. The erosion of our health care safety net threatens the stability of the system for all of us.

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Action Alert: Email the MRT

In response to the hurried and flawed process used to develop proposals for New York Medicaid redesign, the Save Our Safety Net-Campaign asks allies to send emails to members of the Medicaid Redesign Team (MRT) expressing our distaste with their decision making process.

Sample text and email addresses of MRT members are below.

——-

Subject: Disappointed with Medicaid Redesign Process

Sample text:

“Medicaid Redesign Team –

We are saddened and angered by the “rush to judgment” on February 24th in the vote of the Medicaid Redesign Team to approve a package of recommendations that you had in your hands for less than 24 hours.  There had been major changes in what recommendations you were being asked to vote on, yet you voted.  The information was just made available on the web site the same day as the vote.  The aborting of the time frame by five days meant the public had no opportunity to review, digest, and comment on this package – much of which will have a dramatic impact on people’s lives.

The process had so many flaws that it would be difficult to name all of them.  But while trying to appear as this was a public transparent process, in the end it was anything but open and public.  To cite just one “mistake”, Mr. Introne acknowledged publicly at the meeting on February 24th that people who had been listed in support of proposal #67, had actually spoke in opposition to this proposal.  #67, or Berger 2, would make money available to close, consolidate or merge hospitals, nursing homes, and clinics and was actively supported by Ken Raske (GNYHA) and Stephen Berger.”

Email addresses of MRT members:

Ann Monroe<amonroe@chfwcny.org>;Arlene Gonzalez-Sanchez<arlenesanchez@oasas.state.ny.us>;Joe Giglio (Assembly)<giglioj@assembly.state.ny.us>; Assemblyman Richard N. Gottfried<gottfried@assembly.state.ny.us>; Carol Raphael<craphael@vnsny.org>; DanSisto<dsisto@hanys.org>; Dennis Rivera<drseiu@aol.com>; Dr. JeffreySachs<jsachs@sachsmessage.com>; Nirav Shah<nrs02@health.state.ny.us>; Dr. William Streck<william.streck@bassett.org>; Ed Matthews<ematthews@ucpnyc.org>; Eli Feldman<efeldman@mjhs.org>; Elizabeth Swain<eswain@chcanys.org>; Frank Branchini<fbranchini@emblemhealth.com>; GeorgeGresham<georgeg@1199.org>; James Introne<James.Introne@exec.ny.gov>; Jason Helgerson<jah23@health.state.ny.us>; Karen Ballard<kballard@nyc.rr.com>; Ken Raske<raske@gnyha.org>; Lara Kassel<lkassel@cdrnys.org>; Linda Gibbs<lgibbs@cityhall.nyc.gov>; Lisa Ullman<Lisa.Ullman@exec.ny.gov>; Max Chmura<max.e.chmura@omr.state.ny.us>; MikeDowling<mdowling@nshs.edu>; Mike Hogan<cocomfh@omh.state.ny.us>; RobertMegna<Robert.Megna@budget.state.ny.us>; Kemp Hannon (Senate)<hannon@nysenate.gov>; Thomas Duane (Senate)<duane@nysenate.gov>; SteveAcquario<sacquario@nysac.org>; Steve Berger<sberger@odysseyinvestment.com>

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Let’s Go Wisconsin On Them

We are back in New York City after a productive weekend at the black, Latino and Asian legislators caucus in Albany, where we presented on a panel about the Governor’s Medicaid Redesign Team with Judy Wessler from the Commission on the Public’s Health System and Laray Brown from the NYC Health and Hospitals Corporation, among others. Our collective message was clear. In not so many words: the MRT process sucks. The proposals it is considering also, by and large, suck. And the hurt will be felt most acutely by black and brown and immigrant communities across New York State. (Here’s a link to our PowerPoint presentation. Judy presented an overview of the MRT and all its problems, which you can download here, and Laray discussed the impact of the MRT on the city’s public hospitals in particular – click here for her presentation.)

Everyone we spoke to was hella angry about these Medicaid cuts and the means by which they are being made. As one panel attendee said, “we need to go Wisconsin on them!” And, indeed, we are plotting our next moves in advance of the MRT’s announcement of the cuts that it is recommending on March 1. We will keep you posted on this blog, or you can email the Save Our Safety Net Campaign to get up-to-the-minute updates (soscny@gmail.com). In the meantime, here are some important dates to keep in mind:

  • February 24 & 25: Next meeting of the Medicaid Redesign Team (open to the public): 10:30 a.m. in Meeting Rooms 2-4, Concourse, Empire State Plaza, in Albany.
  • February 28: Meeting of the Medicaid Redesign Team (open to the public): 10:30 a.m. in the Hart Theater of the Egg in Albany
  • March 1: Medicaid Redesign Team announces its recommendations

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Decisionmaking From on High

Tomorrow, Friday, February 18, is the deadline for members of Governor Cuomo’s Medicaid Redesign Team to submit their “scores” for 49 proposals given to them by the New York State Department of Health that are supposed to generate $2.85 billion–yes, billion–in cuts to the Medicaid program. These 49 were culled from the several thousands received via a severely flawed public hearing and online/written submission process that took place over the last several weeks in cities across the state. Not only were many proposals put forward by consumers and members of the public entirely excluded from the 49 that the Team will ultimately be deciding on, the few that did make it in were inaccurately captured in the bizarre spreadsheet format being used to capture major policy proposals to restructure the state and the country’s largest health insurance program for the poor. Oh, and did we mention that the proposals are going to be scored using Survey Monkey? That’s right, Survey Monkey.

In response, the Save Our Safety Net Campaign, of which we are a part, issued this open letter to the members of the Medicaid Redesign Team, instructing them how to vote on certain key proposals. This is not to say that we accept or buy into the ridiculous “process” that has been put in place by the MRT, but we also can’t remain silent on issues that will significantly impact the communities we care about. You can click here to download a copy of the letter.

Please let us know if you have any comments or concerns. There will still be other opportunities to weigh in on this process. On February 24th, the Medicaid Redesign Team will be meeting to discuss the scored proposals. The meeting will take place in Albany, and it’s important to have consumer voices out in full force. March 1 is when the final recommendations of the Team will be announced. We are planning activities in New York City around the announcement and will keep you posted about details. And, of course, state elected officials will have to weigh in on the recommendations too, and we are hoping that if you are  a New York resident that you will tell your representatives how you feel about the Medicaid program and why it is important to you and your community.

Critical decisions about the health care system in New York should not be made from on high, but from the ground up.

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