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Demarest Woman Joins Fight To Save Mental Health Funding

Cynthia Chazen. Photo Credit: Lorraine Ash
Tom Rosamilia, vice president of behavioral health at Bergen Regional Medical Center. Photo Credit: Lorraine Ash
A legislative breakfast on the community mental health care crisis drew 300 people to Seasons in Washington Township. Photo Credit: Lorraine Ash
Bob Sheehan of the Michigan Association of Community Health Boards issued a warning. His state, which went to fee-for-service spending, now allocates $7.50 per year per person for community mental health care. Photo Credit: Lorraine Ash
Bergen County Freeholders Thomas Sullivan and Joan Voss. Photo Credit: Lorraine Ash
Bergen County Mental Health Administrator Michele Hart-Loughlin. Photo Credit: Lorraine Ash
Bob Parker of New Bridge Services, based in Morris and Passaic counties, advocating for a return to the contract system of state funding. Photo Credit: Lorraine Ash

WASHINGTON TOWNSHIP, N.J. — Cynthia Chazen of Demarest knows from mental health.

Her postpartum depression was easily put into remission with medication.

She wishes she could say the same for 14 other members of her family.

“They suffer much more from obsessive-compulsive disorder, bipolar disorder, treatment-resistant depression, addiction, alcoholism, death by drunk driving, Alzheimer’s, and suicide loss,” Chazen said Wednesday.

She was talking to 300 mental health providers, patients, and lawmakers at a legislative breakfast.

Her loved ones, at all phases of their crises, have been treated by one of the four community mental health agencies of Bergen County.

She shudders to think of what could have happened if those agencies — the cornerstone of mental health treatment for decades — did not exist.

But that’s just what could happen next July 1.

The event at Seasons in Washington Township, hosted by Bergen’s agencies, had a single purpose: to sound an alarm.

They warn that if a scheduled cut in state funding goes through next July 1, as planned, 20,000 people now receiving community mental health treatment will lose access to care.

Bottom line: the current state contract funding is “a safety net” for agencies, said John Mitchell, emcee, former freeholder president, and current trustee with the Paramus-based Care Plus NJ.

Without their programs, Mitchell said, the 1 in 17 people among us with severe mental illness will go to homeless shelters, to jail, to emergency rooms, and to public health facilities such as Bergen Regional Medical Center.

“From a taxpayer perspective,” he added, “it’s going to kill us unless this safety net is put in place.”

Tom Rosamilia, vice president of behavioral health at Bergen Regional Medical Center, said an average of 25 psychiatric patients were in the center’s emergency department every hour of every day in July and August.

The center has 319 acute psychiatric beds, he said.

“We had people sitting in emergency department chairs for days because there were no beds, there were no cots,” Rosamilia said.

“We’ve been underfunded all along,” he added. “This will only make it worse.”

The funding change at issue is a shift from a contract-based system to a fee-for-service system.

Under the contract system, in effect for decades, agencies are able to subsidize part of the treatment cost for people who have insurance but cannot afford their deductible – a common scenario for those insured under the Affordable Care Act.

Under the fee-for-service system, they cannot service that population.

“The state has been making us whole,” explained Joe Masciandaro, president and CEO of the Paramus-based Care Plus NJ.

As of July 2017, Medicaid patients will still be able to find assistance, as will those wealthy enough to pay out of pocket.

But those in the middle, including the working poor, will not.

It’s ironic, Chazen pointed out, that patients can get Reiki at the major hospitals in the county but basic mental health care is jeopardized.

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