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Behavioral health concerns aired

January 31, 2009|By MATTHEW UMSTEAD

MARTINSBURG, W.Va. -- Jacqueline Columbia's request of West Virginia lawmakers seems simple enough.

"I would like the same set of rules (to) apply to every provider," said Columbia, the director of clinical and community services at the Board of Child Care's behavioral health center near Falling Waters, W.Va.

A disparity in regulatory requirements has given behavioral health facilities in West Virginia's neighboring states an unfair advantage, Columbia said.

Except for clinical reasons, "it should never be acceptable to send a kid out of state," Columbia said.

Columbia said the disparate rules are particularly troubling when the Board of Child Care's West Virginia campus, which is an outreach ministry of The United Methodist Church, contributes to the local economy and the church easily could have decided to build on land it owns in Washington County.

The nonprofit, multiservice organization's construction of a 50-bed facility at 715 Brown Road in 2001 was an investment of about $13 million, Columbia said.

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The disparity cited by Columbia is among numerous concerns behavioral health leaders in the Eastern Panhandle say need to be addressed. They say taxpayers will have to shoulder even higher jail and long-term hospitalization costs if existing service providers are allowed to collapse.

Eastern Panhandle Mental Health Services Inc., which operates as EastRidge Health Systems, is on the brink of being engulfed in red ink already, Executive Director Paul Macom said.

"Right now, we just have our nose above the surface," Macom said after he asked the Berkeley County Commission in January for its support in lobbying Gov. Joe Manchin.

EastRidge is a not-for-profit corporation that provides programs and services for mental illness/retardation/developmental disabilities and substance-abuse disorders in Martinsburg, but Macom said the organization has struggled to recruit and retain staff because of debt that now stands at about $1.1 million.

EastRidge assumed part of the debt when it was tasked in 2002 with providing services once provided by the Eastern Panhandle Training Center for the Handicapped Inc. (EPTC), a community mental retardation/developmental disabilities center that went belly up that year.

Faced with state licensing problems and lawsuits alleging criminal neglect and lack of supervision, EPTC's local board of directors was replaced in April 2001 by one board member, Sunrise Community Inc., according to court records filed in Berkeley County Circuit Clerk Virginia M. Sine's office.

The president of Sunrise, Leslie W. Leech Jr. of Miami, signed a bankruptcy petition for EPTC less than 12 months later, according to court records.

Macom said the bankruptcy proceeding ultimately caused further hardship on EastRidge, which was obligated by the state to fill the sudden gap in service.

"At one time, we had three human resources directors because we couldn't let anyone go," Macom said of the bankruptcy outcomes.

In addition to the thousands of dollars of legal bills that came with EPTC's operation, EastRidge itself added another $500,000 in 2004 to settle allegations by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' Office of Inspector General (OIG) that the behavioral health center overbilled the government for mental health services it provided.

Macom said EastRidge would operate from a much more stable position with additional funding, which he said would help with salary increases that already are notoriously low in the behavioral health-care field.

Speaking to the county commission on behalf of EastRidge, Mary Beth Blair of Kisner Communications said all of the behavioral health systems across the state are hurting and are bound to cost taxpayers more money if those in need end up at more costly regional jails, prisons or hospitals for treatment.

Blair said she would lobby state lawmakers and the governor this year for a $1.5 million increase in Medicaid funding for three consecutive years in the area of "clinic and rehabilitation" coded behavioral health care.

"This is an important first step in re-establishing community-based behavioral health services across the state and an important step for EastRidge to secure long-term future stability," Blair said.

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