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January 27, 2023

State, local leaders discuss barriers to county’s mental health services

Credit: The Frederick News Post

Members of Maryland’s Congressional delegation and Frederick County officials on Friday discussed barriers in providing county mental health services and federal funding opportunities to bypass them.

The county announced earlier this month that it will receive $699,000 in federal funds to pay for equipment at a new crisis stabilization center that will be built over the next year at 340 Montevue Lane in Frederick.

At the beginning of Friday’s meeting, federal lawmakers — including Sen. Ben Cardin, Sen. Chris Van Hollen and Rep. David Trone — touted this funding and the center’s ability to treat county residents experiencing mental health illness, substance abuse problems and other crises.

Then, they asked County Executive Jessica Fitzwater and county health officials for suggestions on how to provide further aid.

“We’ve seen a significant increase in mental health challenges,” said Cardin. “We have a crisis. … And we’re anxious to hear .. how this [funding] is going to be utilized, and what we can do to continue to help you in partnership to deal with this crisis.”

Andrea Walker, director of behavioral health services for the Frederick County Health Department, said the center could provide more acute care to residents, including psychiatric assessments and evaluations and a hot meal.

But she identified a broader need in connecting those residents with the center and other mental health facilities through a buttressed emergency response infrastructure.

Walker referenced a program in Baltimore City and neighboring counties that links emergency response units with area hospitals to identify open beds for patients.

She said Frederick County has some of the resources to implement a similar program, such as mobile crisis teams and mental health hotlines, but lacks the infrastructure to pull it together into a centralized call system that she called “care traffic control.”

“Purchasing similar software would allow us to better deploy our assets, so that we’d have one hotline to answer the calls,” Walker said. “It would know what the individual’s needs were and be able to tell which team was in close proximity.”

In response, Cardin encouraged the county to apply for bigger grants to fund behavioral health and addiction programs, saying he and Van Hollen would help get them through the Senate Appropriations Committee.

Another shortfall in county mental health services Walker identified is a stipulation that for a patient with Medicare to have their treatment reimbursed, a licensed psychiatrist must be on site when the patient meets with a mental health counselor who lacks a certain level of licensing.

“Psychiatrists are hard to come by and they are expensive,” Walker said. “And it’s very difficult if we have someone who is a professional counselor fully capable [of] providing the exact same services as a board-licensed social worker, who has to have their schedule checked to make sure that they are only working [while] a psychiatrist is on site.”

Travis Walter, administrative director of crisis services at the Mental Health Association of Frederick County, said the combination of these rules and a shortage of psychiatrists has built a large backlog of patients awaiting care.

“I have probably about 50 individuals who have been on my list for over six months because I don’t have the staffing,” Walter said. “Medicare is the only insurance right now that is having that kind of requirements. And our seniors who need us the most and who are finally reaching out for help are the ones that we are not able to serve and we just keep telling them, ‘I’m sorry, you have to wait.'”

In the meeting’s closing moments, before the delegation presented a large ceremonial check for the crisis stabilization center, Cardin said he would follow through with the county on addressing this concern.

“Workforce and health care is a challenge to start off with,” Cardin said. “We don’t want to make it more complicated.”

Earlier in the day, Cardin and Van Hollen attended a separate meeting at Hood College to discuss STEM workforce development with leadership from Hood College and Mount St. Mary’s University.

Hood College will receive $1 million from Congress to fund its new Data Driven Frederick Center and its Biomedical Research and Training Center.