New Hampshire hospitals have joined the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) in a lawsuit against the State of New Hampshire over the boarding of mental health patients in hospital emergency rooms.
In November 2018, the ACLU filed a class action lawsuit in NH federal court asking the court to order the cease of the practice of “psychiatric boarding,” in which mental health patients are held sometimes against their will and without due process in hospital emergency rooms throughout New Hampshire as they await admission to the state psychiatric hospital, often for weeks at a time. This is not only a New Hampshire problem. This is a problem in every state. The hospitals want the practice abolished because, in most cases of severe mental illness, the patient is unemployed and uninsured. There are not enough psychiatric beds to hold the amount of mentally ill consumers.
Many psychiatric patients rely on Medicaid, but due to the Institution for Mental Disease (IMD) exclusion, Medicaid does not cover the cost of care for patients 21 to 64 years of age (when Medicare kicks in) at inpatient psychiatric or addiction treatment facilities with a capacity greater than 16 beds. This rule makes it difficult for states to fund larger inpatient psychiatric hospitals, which further exacerbates the psychiatric boarding crisis.
The emergency rooms (ER) have become the safety net for mental health. The two most common diagnoses at an ER is alcohol abuse and suicidal tendencies. There has been a sharp increase in ER visits for the people suffering from mental health issues in the recent years. Are we as a population growing more depressed?
It is very frustrating to be in a hospital without the allowance to leave. But that is what psychiatric boarding is – patients present to an ER in crisis and because there is no bed for them at a psychiatric hospital, the patient is held at the hospital against their will until a bed opens up. No psychiatric care is rendered at the ER. It is just a waiting game, which is not fun for the people enduring it.
I recently encountered a glimpse into how it feels to be stuck at a hospital without the ability to leave. On a personal level, although not dealing with mental health but with hospitals in general, I recently broke my leg. I underwent surgery and received 6 screws and a plate in my leg. Around Christmas I became extremely ill from an infection in my leg. After I passed out at my home due to an allergic reaction to my medication which caused an epileptic seizure, my husband called EMS and I was transported to the hospital. Because it was the day after Christmas, the staff was light. I was transported to a hospital that had no orthopedic surgeon on call. (Akin to a mental health patient presenting at an ER – there are no psychiatric residents at most hospitals). Because no orthopedic surgeon was on call, I was transported to a larger hospital and underwent emergency surgery for the infection. I stayed at the hospital for 5 of the longest days of my life. Not because I still needed medical treatment, but because the orthopedic surgeon had taken off for vacation between Christmas and New Year’s. Without the orthopedic’s authorization that I could leave the hospital I was stuck there unless I left against medical advice. Finally, at what seemed to be at his leisurely time, the orthopedic surgeon came back to work the afternoon of January 1, 2019, and I was able to leave the hospital… but not without a few choice words from yours truly. I can tell you without any reservation that I was not a stellar patient those last couple days when I felt well enough to leave but there was no doctor present to allow it.
I imagine how I felt those last couple days in the hospital is how mentally ill patients feel while they are being held until a bed at a psychiatric unit opens up. It must be so frustrating. It certainly cannot be ameliorating any presenting mental health condition. In my case, I had no mental health issues but once I felt like I was being held against my will, mental health issues started to arise from my anger.
A shortage of psychiatric inpatient beds is a key contributing factor to overcrowded ERs across the nation. Between 1970 and 2006, state and county psychiatric inpatient facilities in the country cut capacity from about 400,000 beds to fewer than 50,000.
A study conducted by Wake Forest University found that ER stays for mental health issues are approximately 3.2 times longer stays than for physical reasons.
ER visits rose by nearly 15% between 2006 and 2014, according to the Healthcare Cost and Utilization Project. Over the same time period, ER visits associated with mental health and substance abuse shot up by nearly 44%.
Hopefully if the NH Hospital Association is successful in its lawsuit, other states will follow suit and file a lawsuit. I am not sure where the mentally ill will go if they do not remain at the ER. Perhaps this lawsuit and others that follow will force states to change the current Medicaid laws that do not allow mental health coverage for those over 21 years old. With the mental health and physical health Americans with Disabilities’ parity laws, I do not know why someone hasn’t challenged the constitutionality of the IMD exclusion.