Healing the Broken Mind: Transforming America's Failed Mental Health System: Ideas from a New Book about Transformation in the Mental Health System

By Kelly, Timothy A. | Behavioral Healthcare, November-December 2009 | Go to article overview

Healing the Broken Mind: Transforming America's Failed Mental Health System: Ideas from a New Book about Transformation in the Mental Health System


Kelly, Timothy A., Behavioral Healthcare


"America's mental health service delivery system is in shambles ... [and] needs dramatic reform."

Did that get your attention? It sure got mine, especially since it came from a 2002 presidential commission on mental healthcare. It's not that anyone wants it this way. Mental health providers work hard to treat those who seek care, consumers want to get better, and third-party payers hope their funded services will lead to healing. But somehow, despite these efforts, the outcome of mental healthcare in America is too often disappointing. Consumers continue to experience the vicious cycle of clinical crisis, hospitalization/stabilization, and discharge to less-than-optimal community services, where the cycle may well start over again.

As a former state commissioner for Virginia's Department of Mental Health, Mental Retardation, and Substance Abuse Services, I saw too many examples of a system in shambles. I worked hard to promote system reform, and since then have been speaking and writing about the need for overdue reforms and means of accomplishing them. Our neighbors with serious mental illness desperately need help. They need innovative and effective care that is home-and community-based, outcome-oriented, and leads to recovery. Recovery does not mean perfect healing, but improvement to the point that the consumer can have a real home, a fulfilling job, and deep relationships. Recovery means that these people can come home.

To achieve comprehensive and lasting change, a five-fold transformation is needed. A transformed system must be characterized by:

Outcome based measurement. Less than half of all mental healthcare is supported by good evidence. The way forward is to measure actual clinical outcomes in the lives of those receiving treatment. Scientifically sound and easy-to-use clinical outcome measures are readily available for just about any mental health service setting. An increasing number of policymakers and public/private insurers are expecting that treatments or services offered for a person with mental illness will first be subjected to scientific outcome-oriented testing and found to be effective. All mental health treatments will thus eventually be evidence-based with an expected outcome of recovery. Once outcome data are made available, policymakers, providers, consumers, and insurers alike will be able to tell which community-based services are operating as intended, for whom, and in what settings.

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Innovation. There is no inconsistency between vigorous competition and delivery of high quality healthcare. In fact, when vigorous competition prevails, consumer welfare is maximized. Yet a state mental health agency is, by definition, a monopolistic enterprise. The inherent monopoly of state mental health agencies must be broken if transformation is to proceed and significantly improve the lives of those receiving care. A transformed, truly competitive mental health system would:

* Facilitate well-informed and price-sensitive consumers

* Facilitate well-informed providers

* Assure easy market entry and exit

* Develop multiple providers and a thriving market

* Link comparative data and funding (with caution)

For the sake of all Americans with serious mental illness, it is time to do away with state-run mental healthcare monopolies.

Parity and universal coverage. Transformation will not get far if those with serious mental illness lack the coverage necessary to get needed care. Individuals and families that already struggle with the effects of serious mental illness should not have to struggle financially as well. The Mental Health Parity and Addiction Act of 2008 requires public and private insurers to offer comparable physical and mental health coverage. Implementation rules for this legislation are expected soon.

While parity legislation now requires the benefits for mental health diagnoses to match those for medical/surgical diagnoses, both of these benefits are subject to meeting "medical necessity" criteria. …

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