2018 could be the year Iowa lawmakers get real about mental health care

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Iowa Capitol | Randy Paulson

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: the mental health care system in Iowa is in bad shape.

In 2016, WHO-TV reported Iowa was ranked the second worst state in the country for mental health care. More recently, a poll from late last year found the majority of Iowans disapprove of how state lawmakers are handling mental health issues.

One of the main issues the state faces is a shortage of mental hospital beds, especially given the fact that in 2015, Gov. Branstad closed two of the state’s four mental institutes.

The idea behind closing those state hospitals was that they were expensive and that patients would better be served at smaller, community-based centers. However, the reality was that this decision resulted in less care for Iowans because the state has, up to this point, lacked smaller care centers.

In 2018, though, change may be on the way.

Last week, Jerry Foxhaven, director of Iowa’s Department of Human Services, presented a plan that would:

a) create six “access centers” that would offer short-term mental health care for Iowans and thus relieve the burden of psychiatric units in bigger hospitals,

b) double “assertive community treatment” teams who monitor people suffering from chronic mental illness

c) create a 24-hour “crisis line” for Iowans to call and speak with an expert about their mental health and treatment options.

Foxhaven acknowledged the plan, which is set to be included in an upcoming legislative bill, won’t be a panacea to all of Iowa’s mental health care problems but would at least be a step forward.

Peggy Huppert, executive director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) Iowa, has also been involved in developing the new mental health care plan. In the article, she’s compares Iowa’s mental health care system to a clogged plumbing system, since the remaining mental health facilities have become overcrowded.

If all goes according to plan, the proposed access centers would both alleviate the burden on existing mental facilities and would be strategically placed so that, “no Iowans would be more than 90 minutes from one,” Huppert said.

The centers would also be a welcome relief to sheriffs’ departments across the state, since they often receive calls from people who are in need of treatment. Deputies must then transport patient to the nearest available facility, which depending on geographic location, can be hundreds of miles away.

While it still remains to be seen how this plan, if and when it is signed into law, will improve the state of mental health care in Iowa, it’s clear that mental health has emerged as one of the most prominent issues of the 2018 state election cycle.

With any luck, state lawmakers, along with help from organizations like NAMI Iowa, local law enforcement and health care experts, will be able to come together this year to implement reforms that will drastically improve mental health care for all Iowans.


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