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Missouri behavioral health care providers warn of ‘crisis’ caused by coronavirus

  

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. — Missouri’s behavioral health providers are struggling under a rash of illnesses and demand during the COVID-19 pandemic, providers told lawmakers Wednesday. 

Michelle Schafer, regional vice president of behavioral health for SSM Health, said there had been an influx in mental health issues among children and those with mental illnesses and developmental disabilities since the start of the pandemic, reporting a 50-200 percent increase in emergency room visits across the country and in Missouri over the past year and a half.  

“We are in a current state of crisis — it is here and it is much, much worse because of COVID and a lack of care, the lack of an ability to access the right kind of care, and fear of COVID from our patients,” Schafer said. “We have a tsunami of newly diagnosed patients that we are seeing right now each and every day as a significant result of COVID.”

Schafer appeared before the House Subcommittee on Mental Health Policy Research Wednesday to discuss the biggest obstacles for behavioral health providers. She also pointed to a lack of bed space for new patients: At one point this year, 27 people were awaiting a placement. 

More than one dozen providers, advocates, and foster parents testified before the committee on staffing and capacity shortages, regulatory systems, and telehealth capabilities during the five-hour hearing. 

Dr. Amy Beck, a clinical psychologist from Kansas City, urged the subcommittee to evaluate the equity of telehealth services in Missouri as popularity increases and to ensure health care providers were adequately reimbursed for their upgrades.  

Animesh Shah and Vicky Davidson with the Missouri Developmental Disabilities Council (MODDC) offered their assistance to the subcommittee. MODDC has several projects in the works, including a teledentistry program, 911 voice boxes for those who struggle to communicate, and trauma information initiatives for schools. 

The duo also met with Gov. Mike Parson Wednesday to discuss the council’s projects.  

Numerous providers have urged the General Assembly to invest in telehealth, both in the subcommittee and before the House Special Interim Committee on Broadband Development. Several Missouri hospitals have been approved for telehealth grants from the federal government. 

Former Department of Mental Health (DMH) Director Mark Stringer told the committee last month staffing was a root issue as more people look at mental health in the wake of the pandemic. While the department hopes to expand its services through new health centers, he said it would struggle to staff them without an increase in wages. 

Missouri ranks No. 12 in need for mental health services but No. 31 in access, according to Stringer.

Wednesday’s hearing was the last round of testimony from providers. Members will compile a report of its findings and policy recommendations. Rep. Wayne Wallingford, who chairs the committee, estimated it would be submitted in late December or early January.