Many Face Long Waits for Mental Health Care

By Bill Turque
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 18, 2006

The number of low-income adults in Fairfax County waiting to be seen by a mental health professional has nearly doubled in the last three months, a result of unfilled positions in county clinics, a new report says.

The Fairfax-Falls Church Community Services Board, the agency that operates mental health, mental retardation and substance abuse programs for the county, said 314 people were seeking an initial mental health screening and assessment as of June 1, compared with 173 on March 1.

The number of youths waiting for screening grew from 37 to 49 in the same period.

The Fairfax Board of Supervisors asked for the progress report after Community Services Board officials said at a March hearing that low-income residents could wait as long as six months to begin outpatient treatment. Those seeking spaces in group homes can experience waits ranging from 10 months to several years.

Board members expressed unhappiness with the growing volume of people facing delays.

"That ain't in the right direction," said Supervisor Penelope A. Gross (D-Mason), vice chairman of the board's Human Services Committee. "The thing that really frosts me is that people can't even get assessed."

Agency officials say competition from the private sector and other government agencies, combined with the expense of housing in Fairfax, has hampered recruitment of case managers, nurses and psychotherapists. Since March, the agency has intensified its advertising and increased some starting salaries.

James A. Thur, executive director of the Community Services Board, said the addition of seven staff members who began working last week will begin to improve services at outpatient clinics in Reston, Annandale and the Alexandria area.

"We should be able to bring those wait lists down," he said. Five vacancies remain, but beyond that, agency officials said, the county will need to add positions to deal with the increasing demand for treatment.

Gross said she was not convinced that more personnel is the answer. "Mostly what the [Community Services Board] needs to do is roll its sleeves up and do things differently," she said.

Mental health services in Virginia are delivered through a network of such boards. Fairfax County provides about 55 percent of the funding; Medicaid pays 22 percent. Advocates have long criticized the size of the state's contribution, which is about 12 percent.

Fairfax's problems reflect what experts say is a national crisis in mental health care. Growth in population and changes in the health-care industry and in the medical complexity of patients' problems have strained agencies virtually everywhere. More than 83 percent of the 11,000 Fairfax residents who received mental health care in 2005 have household incomes below $25,000 a year. Most are either uninsured or underinsured.

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