Mental health center in Little Rock to close after 50 years

Funding shifts leave clinic out of cash

Little Rock Community Mental Health Center and an associated day treatment facility will close Sept. 23, ending more than 50 years of operations in central Arkansas.

Financial pressures related to structural changes in health care, especially care financed in part through government programs, triggered the closure, Executive Director Thomas Grunden said in an interview.

In particular, shifts toward fee-for-service models and funding through specialized programs such as Medicare and Medicaid, as opposed to grants, have posed untenable administrative costs, he said.

"If you get into all these special pots of money, they all come with their own regulations and their own restrictions," he said.

"You run up your administrative costs to the point that you raise the question whether you can afford it."

The center's main clinic and pharmacy off University Avenue and its Pinnacle House day treatment site on Daisy Gatson Bates Drive all are scheduled to close next month.

About 65 employees and contractors serve Little Rock Community Mental Health Center's roughly 2,500 clients.

Many of those workers have already been hired into other positions, Grunden said, including some teams that he expects will join the Centers for Youth & Families, a provider with which the group has a relationship.

A statement from the center's board of directors said the organization is working to notify patients of the closure and help them transition to other sources of care.

"At a time when so many public figures are focusing on the country's need to address the issue of mental illness, the closure of [Little Rock Community Mental Health Center] should serve as a wake-up call," they wrote.

In a recent five-year period the center's budget had been in the red for four of those years, Grunden said, and officials started discussing in early July whether the center's services would continue.

Several solutions were proposed, including cutbacks in services, but ultimately, "we couldn't see how we could finance it over time," he said. "We started talking about, well, can we go forward?"

Serious financial troubles have affected at least one other nonprofit mental-health provider in Little Rock this year.

In January, Youth Home Inc. cut 20% of its beds and announced the layoffs of 31 employees, citing problems related to stalled Medicaid reimbursement rates.

At that time, other mental health care providers in Arkansas reported feeling a squeeze or said they were reducing their payrolls through attrition.

Established by the State Hospital in 1967 with federal funds, the Little Rock mental health center previously was on Shuffield Drive, according to information on its website.

The group transitioned to a nonprofit structure in the 1990s and moved to its current offices at 1100 N. University Ave. in 2014.

In recent years, the organization was one of 12 designated community mental health centers in the state and was the beneficiary of funding to provide care for people who are indigent.

As its financial position became clear, the clinic's board discussed applying for that status and accompanying funding in a partnership with the Centers for Youth & Families for this fiscal year, but determined that it wasn't economically feasible, Grunden said.

As of July 1, the Centers for Youth & Families holds the $1.9 million annual contract to offer indigent mental health services in Little Rock and south Pulaski County, which is supported by a combination of federal and state funds.

Bill Paschall, a consultant to and spokesman for the Centers for Youth & Families, did not yet know exactly how many patients were in question, but said "we will be providing service to those folks who were, at one point, getting that service through Little Rock [Community Mental Health Center]."

He added that it was "too early to know" whether the the Centers for Youth & Families, which has offices in Little Rock and Monticello, would absorb any clinicians or staff members who were previously providing that care.

Dr. Lisa Evans, former clinical director for Little Rock Community Mental Health Center, called the closure "very sad."

"It's hard to watch that happen. [I am] particularly fearful that it will cause some gaps in services for patients," some of whom have serious behavioral health issues, she said.

Now heading the UAMS Pulaski County Regional Crisis Stabilization Unit, Evans said staff members there will be on the lookout for the mental health center's former patients who may have lost access to medications or care.

"We hope to not see fallout, but I do think there will be some," she said.

Luke Kramer, executive director of mental health advocacy group The STARR Coalition, echoed concerns about the availability of services.

He said the center's closure could affect people who have limited transportation options, such as people who are homeless.

"I'm afraid that there's going to be a huge gap of care around downtown [and] midtown," he said. "That seems to be one of the biggest concerns that I have, at this point."

A Section on 08/28/2019

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