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Eye On Boise

Fri., Feb. 8, 2013, 12:34 p.m.

Testimony at H&W listening session: Mental health services, dental coverage, Medicaid expansion

Three dozen people testified at a
Three dozen people testified at a "listening session" heald Friday by the House and Senate Health & Welfare committees (Betsy Russell)

Here's a news item from the Associated Press: BOISE, Idaho (AP) — Increased mental health services, improved dental care coverage and Medicaid expansion topped the list of priorities presented to Idaho lawmakers during a hearing on health and welfare issues. About three dozen people testified at the joint Senate and House Health and Welfare committee hearing Friday morning, many focusing on what they said is a dire need for increased access to mental health care. Boise Police Chief Mike Masterson told lawmakers his department responds to an average of 20 calls each day for residents experiencing a mental crisis, and Boise loses an average of one person a day to mental illness. He says the state needs to treat people with mental illnesses early instead of waiting for them to reach a crisis.

Click below for a full report from AP reporter Rebecca Boone.

Lawmakers hear from dozens on Medicaid issues
By REBECCA BOONE, Associated Press

BOISE, Idaho (AP) — Increased mental health services, improved dental care coverage and Medicaid expansion are among the top priorities on the minds of Idahoans who testified before lawmakers Friday at a hearing in state Capitol.

Roughly 150 people attended the joint Senate and House Health and Welfare Committee meeting, and nearly three dozen shared their views and concerns before time expired on the two-hour listening session. Many focused on what they said was a dire need for increased access to care for the mentally ill, after substantial cuts have been made to the Department of Health and Welfare's mental health budget over the past few years.

Kathie Garrett, a regional director with the National Alliance on Mental Illness-Idaho, said cuts to Medicaid's dental care coverage for adults have taken a particularly hard toll on residents, including those with mental illnesses.

When the cuts were made, lawmakers suggested that it was a temporary elimination of services that wouldn't have an impact on emergency health outcomes, said Garrett.

"Now we have reports of people who have gone three years without seeing their dentist. ... They don't have the money to go to the dentist. They often have many other chronic illnesses and the money they do have goes to that," she said.

When Idaho's economy declined amid the recession, lawmakers turned to health and welfare programs to make cuts and balance the budget. Residents and care providers on Friday urged lawmakers to begin restoring money to programs for elderly, disabled adults and the state's mentally ill.

Statistics from the National Alliance on Mentally Illness show that only one state budgeted less than Idaho for mental health services during fiscal year 2012. And on a percentage basis, Idaho was among the top ten states in the nation in cutting mental health care budgets between 2009 and 2012.

Scott Burpee, owner of a Pocatello business called Safe Haven that operates assisted living homes for the mentally ill, said his homes are routinely at capacity, forcing him to turn away needy clients.

A hospital emergency room is often the only other option for those struggling with mental health issues, he said.

"We take the worst of the worst of the state, and we're full," Burpee said.

Complicating matters is a state licensing rule that says patients at the assisted living facility can't stay if they're a danger to themselves or others.

"I probably have a suicide attempt once a week in one of my buildings, and Health and Welfare says we have to discharge them ... or my license is in jeopardy," Burpee said. "Where do we put them? Where do these people go?"

Boise Police Chief Mike Masterson said care providers aren't the only ones feeling the burden of dealing with those with mental illness. His department responds to an average of 20 calls each day of residents in crisis, at least one of whom is usually hospitalized, he said.

"Multiply that scenario at least 100 times across the state and the results are staggering," Masterson said. "We can't continue to focus exclusively on emergency rescue efforts like building hospitals for the mentally ill."

Others made a pitch for Idaho to expand Medicaid.

Jacob Radil, a legislative intern for Catholic Charities of Idaho representing the Roman Catholic Diocese of Boise, said an expansion could provide health insurance to more than 80,000 people currently uninsured, a group largely made up of the working poor, which would ease the strain on county and state budgets that pay for indigent care.

Copyright 2013 The Associated Press.

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Betsy Z. Russell
Betsy Z. Russell joined The Spokesman-Review in 1991. She currently is a reporter in the Boise Bureau covering Idaho state government and politics, and other news from Idaho's state capital.

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