Support, action and investment are needed in the East to solve what community members and experts alike are calling a mental health crisis across the region and state. That was the common theme at the Mental Health Town Hall in Greenville hosted by North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services (NCDHHS) Secretary Kody H. Kinsley and local legislators Feb. 9.
The bipartisan panel for the town hall featured Rep. Gloristine Brown, Sen. Jim Burgin, House Majority Leader John Bell, Rep. Dr. Tim Reeder and Sen. Kandie Smith, all of whom represent districts that fall within ECU Health’s 29-county service area. With more than 150 people in attendance, community members and representatives for local organizations shared their perspectives on mental health with the panel.
Kinsley said town halls are crucial to help him and other state officials understand the unique challenges in each area of the state.
“We are having mental health challenges all across the state, but every community is different because every community’s resources are different and their needs are different,” Kinsley said. “It’s really important to me as we set statewide policy that we’re doing it in a way that is informed by boots on the ground, and we heard a lot of that tonight, and we know we have a lot of work to do, and I’ve appreciated this conversation.”
Dr. Michael Lang, chair of the Department of Psychiatry & Behavioral Health at ECU Health and the Brody School of Medicine said the town hall was a positive step to help share with leaders what he and others are seeing locally. He said it was symbolic to bring the event to Greenville where he and his team see a disproportionate number of patients daily needing mental health resources at the ECU Health Medical Center Emergency Department.
“This was a great event for us overall,” Dr. Lang said. “We had a chance to meet our leadership from Raleigh and let them know about the issues and challenges we’re facing, not only here in eastern North Carolina but across the state. I can tell you firsthand we feel the impact of the mental health crisis here in the region and here in Greenville at the medical center. The challenges we’re talking about, such as a lack of access to resources and a dependence on emergency department visits for those suffering from mental health crises, are felt every day at hospitals across the region. That’s why it is important to focus on improving outpatient behavioral health resources to crate stable environments and prevent hospitalization.”
Officials noted there are at least 350 mental health patients in emergency departments across the state waiting for bed placement on any given day. The lack of access to care and resources are more magnified in rural areas such as eastern North Carolina where there is a disproportionate number of under or uninsured individuals. The bipartisan panel all agreed Medicaid expansion in North Carolina would help provide necessary resources towards solving the crisis and Sen. Burgin noted that Medicaid expansion would allow the state to spend more than $1 billion on improving access to behavioral health resources.
“ECU Health is grateful for our local legislators who are committed to having these difficult but necessary conversations while at the same time pursuing common-sense solutions like Medicaid expansion,” said Brian Floyd, chief operating officer, ECU Health. “Medicaid expansion would help provide needed health coverage to 100,000 people in our region and improve the way we as a state deliver behavioral health resources.”
At ECU Health, the system announced a partnership with Acadia Healthcare to build a state-of-the-art, 144-bed behavioral health hospital in the medical district of Greenville, less than a mile from ECU Health Medical Center.
The hospital, slated to open in 2025, will provide important access to behavioral health services for adults and pediatric patients, with 24 inpatient beds specifically for children and adolescents with mental health needs.
“I’m incredibly grateful for health systems that have been investing in building more behavioral health beds,” Kinsley said. “This is important but I have a job to do on this, too. We have got to increase [reimbursement] rates to help make those beds sustainable and used.”