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Coalition weathers a storm

October 1, 2010
by Kathleen M. Tiernan, G. Michael Winburn, and Ben G. Raimer
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After Hurricane Ike, a provider uses its continuum of care model to help the community recover

In response to a lack of consumer participation in follow-up care in the area, the Gulf Coast Center (GCC)-the regional mental health authority for Galveston and Brazoria Counties in southeast Texas-began collaborating with other local agencies to improve access for mental health services while containing cost. The need for better communication between the mental health authority, the community, and the local hospital was evident, and in 2005, a continuum of care model was created to allow GCC case managers to work in the field at “critical points” identified throughout the community.

Selected “critical point” sites for GCC's continuum of care model were:

  1. The University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston (UTMB) inpatient psychiatric unit

  2. Two Galveston County Health District clinics (FQHCs)

  3. The Jesse Tree (social services agency)

  4. St. Vincent's House (free clinic)

  5. Luke Society (free weekend street clinic)

  6. Galveston County Jail

  7. Brazoria County Jail

This model also included providing consumers in rural areas with access to services via telepsychiatry. The top priority for this effort-along with providing consumers with continuous, accessible services-was to keep GCC clients from unnecessary use of UTMB's ER or hospital resources by closely monitoring care and compliance in the “critical point” settings.

Little did GCC know when it created this model to better serve the community that these methods would be the organization's salvation after a disaster. Fortunately, the model was able to weather a direct hit from Hurricane Ike in 2008 and proved to be a vital element in the recovery of mental health services following this disaster.

The continuum of care model in action

The continuum of care model sent GCC staff out of their offices and into their assigned community settings, equipped with portable laptops, air cards, and new protocols. The seven organizations in the coalition opened their doors to allow GCC case managers to work part-time onsite. From these sites, the case managers had face-to-face contact with GCC clients and completed case management activities to re-connect the client to GCC services.

In addition to community placements, some case managers were assigned to leased vehicles and formed into mobile response teams (MRTs). Each team included male and female case managers dispatched to clients wherever they were found. Among the reasons to dispatch the MRTs were:

  • Missed psychiatric evaluations or first after-care appointments following hospital discharge;

  • General follow-up from the state hospital;

  • Missed labs, medication appointments, or injections;

  • Complaints from others;

  • Crisis intervention; and

  • Transportation to telepsychiatry or other clinic appointments.

Many of these problems were brought on by a lack of transportation or motivation, and MRTs proved critical to ensuring enrolled clients kept their scheduled clinical appointments and medication checks.

Proven success

The results of the entire outreach initiative were outstanding. Case managers and MRTs recorded nearly 10,000 encounters with more than 4,800 clients over three years, traveling an average of 37,271 miles per year. This effort improved health and social outcomes for clients while containing costs for the healthcare providers.

During this period, the outreach helped thousands of consumers: Hundreds completed applications and were approved for Social Service Income (SSI), while 7,805 applications and approvals were completed for no-cost medications from the state's Pharmacy Assistance Program (PAP), benefitting about 2,000 consumers, most of whom required multiple medications. These steps resulted in $98,000 in savings to GCC in one year-money that could be used for clients without resources but ineligible for entitlement programs. Evidence from the program revealed the case managers were very capable of performing their tasks in alternative sites and became incredibly efficient in assisting each other.

Most impressive among the outcomes was the rate of success in getting UTMB inpatients re-enrolled in GCC services and, therefore, preventing unnecessary hospital visits. The GCC case manager situated in the UTMB psychiatric inpatient unit saw 87 percent of the patients admitted to the hospital that year. An appointment was made at GCC for 91 percent of those clients and, through the collaborative efforts of multiple case management team members, 65 percent completed follow-up appointments at GCC and became more stable.

By avoiding re-admission to the hospital for the clients who kept their appointments with GCC, the savings amounted to $1.5 million. The avoidance of a visit to the ER by those same clients saved another $753,000. Total estimated savings through cost avoidance amounted to $2.3 million. A system was established at GCC to refer qualified clients to the federally qualified health center (FQHC) operated by the Galveston County Health District (GCHD), thereby establishing a medical home for 125 clients through the case manager working part-time at the GCHD clinics.