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Wednesday, Feb. 27, 2008 03:54 am

“A key component”

Providers say mental-health services can expand without costing state

Untitled Document What’s the difference between a person with a mental illness and one with diabetes or a broken limb? Groups that specialize in providing mental-health services would argue that the only distinction is that, assuming they have enough health insurance to pay for the treatment, people are more likely to seek help for a cracked femur than for depression. “Unfortunately we haven’t done a very good job of talking about mental health,” says Frank Anselmo, chief executive officer of the Community Behavioral Healthcare Association of Illinois in Springfield. The CBHA, which represents organizations that serve the mental-health-care needs of people who can’t otherwise afford care, recently launched a campaign designed to help an estimated 17,000 adults and children in Illinois cope with mental illnesses such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, major depression, and alcohol and drug addiction. The program, “Bridging the Health Care Gap,” would expand mental services to children and teenagers in schools, pay for home visits to senior citizens who can’t get out of their homes, and fund additional bilingual mental-health counselors. Providers of mental-health services in central Illinois would receive $3.9 million to assist roughly 839 children and 760 adults. Anselmo says that the beauty of Bridging the Health Care Gap is that by drawing on $42 million from a special trust, known as the Illinois Hospital Tax Assessment fund, providers will be able to broaden care without any additional money from the state. The Legislature created the three-year hospital-tax program in 2005 to attract $2 billion in federal matching funds. However, Anselmo and other mental-health-focused not-for-profit groups worry that the assessment won’t be extended beyond the sunset date of June 1. They also fear that the unused portion of the hospital money — $10 million for mental-health care alone — might be ultimately swept to help fill in holes elsewhere in the current state budget. Danny Chun, spokesman for the Illinois Hospitals Association, says that group supports renewal of the program because hospitals provide much of the state’s acute mental-health services for people who lack health insurance. He adds that the tax money, assessed at a rate of 2.58 percent on adjusted revenues, provides hospitals with a net gain once the federal reimbursement kicks in. Advocates for mentally ill patients argue that psychological well-being is too often left out of discussions about health care, both in terms of rhetoric and of funding. In a 2006 survey, the National Alliance on Mental Illness ranked Illinois 34th in the nation in funding for adults with severe mental illnesses. Illinois was the also the largest state to receive a grade of F from NAMI. “It’s hard to have any kind of health if you don’t have good mental health. The correlation has not been made that mental health is a key component of health care,” says Lora Thomas, executive director of NAMI of Illinois. She adds that without investment in community-based mental-health programs, sick people are more likely to wind up in hospital emergency departments, psychiatric institutions, or correctional facilities — for which taxpayers ultimately pay more. “Mental-health crises cannot be back-burnered for six months,” Thomas says.  

Contact R.L. Nave at rnave@illinoistimes.com.
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