Powerful interventions help Mental Health Center

Billings Gazette

Happy New Year greetings ring true at the Mental Health Center that serves Yellowstone and 10 neighboring counties.

During 2013, the private, nonprofit center suffered severe financial difficulties. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs failed to pay for contract services to area veterans, falling more than $230,000 in arrears by October. Meanwhile, demand grew for a state-sponsored program for adults with indigent, serious mental illnesses, but money to pay for their care did not increase.

As a result, the Mental Health Center temporarily stopped adding new patients to the state Mental Health Services Plan. The center continued to see all its 300 or so military veteran patients, but faced the prospect of having insufficient funds to operate.

The center’s financial situation improved significantly because the VA finally started paying on backlogged claims and processing new claims in a timely manner.

Since November, VA has paid $180,000 that had been delayed for most of a year, while also paying current monthly new claims, Barbara Mettler, the center’s executive director, said this week. As of this week, the VA had cleared up all but $58,500 of claims more than 60 days old.

Tester to the rescue

The VA acted to clear up the backlog soon after Sen. Jon Tester brought the problem to the attention of VA leadership this fall in Washington.

“I don’t know what Tester’s office did, but they got the VA moving,” Mettler said. “We managed to get through it when we weren’t getting paid; we never stopping treating veterans.”

A member of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, Tester frequently is called upon to make things right for veterans. And he has been a leading sponsor of numerous bills to improve services to veterans.

The center has resumed taking new clients into the Mental Health Services Plan for Montanans who aren’t eligible for Medicaid, yet have income below 133 percent of poverty level.

Healthier communication

Although the state program funding hasn’t increased, communication with regional mental health centers has improved significantly since State Health Department Director Richard Opper and members of Gov. Steve Bullock’s staff met with Billings mental health care providers in late October, Mettler said.

The department is working with the Montana Association of Counties to incorporate local concerns into the next biennial state budget, according to Yellowstone County Commissioner Bill Kennedy, who chairs the Mental Health Center board. MACO has a committee that focuses on health issues.

“We will be more actively involved in budget discussions,” Kennedy said.
The Mental Health Center is off to a better start in 2014, but new challenges in caring for mentally ill Montanans loom. More veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan wars are returning home in need of care. More indigent people need care. The federal government sequester has forced VA to try to cut back on some veterans health services. State funding for mental health services is limited and usually distributed in one-year grants to programs that must keep caring for people year after year.

Montanans will need Tester, Bullock, Opper, Kennedy, Mettler and other leaders to champion the cause of good mental health for all in our state.