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Tennesseans with Mental Illness at Risk of Losing Services

November 25, 2011

NASHVILLE, Tenn. - Tennessee Department of Mental Health budget cuts are leaving those who have mental health conditions without adequate care. That's the view of experts who say the widening criteria of TennCare, along with budget reductions, are forcing many patients into emergency rooms and driving up overall costs to Tennesseans.

One is Pam Womack, CEO of the Mental Health Cooperative of Tennessee. Womack says solutions that ensure services for people with mental illness are key to keeping costs down in the long-term.

"An emergency room visit is going to cost a whole lot more than a community mental care center visit. And then, when they get to the emergency room, they're pretty much going to go into inpatient [care] at a TennCare unit or they're going to go to a state hospital – and any hospitalization is five times more than a community service would be."

Womack is convinced that lawmakers' drastic cost containment actions will result in greater financial costs that will ultimately put Tennesseans at risk. She says sensible solutions to contain public insurance program spending, and incentives to achieve the best long-term outcomes for patients, would make for better policy.

Some patients have been denied access to the TennCare program. Womack says many providers are feeling obligated to continue to offer assistance to patients who no longer have coverage – a system she says is unsustainable.

"And so, any cuts to us would even curtail the people that we are now seeing as charity. It's like, there is no place else to cut for this population."

She emphasizes that studies show mental illness left untreated can lead to unemployment, substance abuse, and even homelessness, and she is concerned that lawmakers are making cuts without considering the consequences.

Bo Bradshaw, Public News Service - TN