New VAP funding skirts the issue of universal access

New VAP funding skirts the issue of universal access

New York Nonprofit Press

By Andrew Malekoff, Executive Director

Recently, I participated in a New York State Office of Mental Health Clinic Vital Access Provider (VAP) webinar. The webinar is a first step towards Article 31 mental health clinics applying for funding to preserve long term critical access to community-based mental health services. A total of $60 million in funding, over a three year period, is available.

The intention of the VAP funding opportunity is for community-based mental health clinics that are “fiscally challenged” to develop plans that will demonstrate fiscal viability after three years. The funds can be used for such things as incremental costs for staffing and billing software, for example.

Each clinic that receives a VAP award will be assigned a “strategic planner,” who would be a financial specialist, to help them to complete their final application, to include measurable outcomes. The ongoing achievement of measurable metrics will be tied to continued payments to agencies that have been awarded funding.

The ultimate goal of the project, whether through mergers, improved efficiencies such as centralized scheduling, or agency sharing of back office functions, will be to ensure long term fiscal viability. I thought that the webinar was very informative.

Webinar participants were given an opportunity to ask questions by typing them into a chat box function during the presentation. At the end of the almost two hour webinar, the moderator thanked the participants and concluded the session by stating that all questions had been addressed. Not so!

Here are three questions that I typed in that the moderator did not acknowledge or respond to:

  • Is the VAP funding initiative biased against middle class and working poor non-Medicaid children and their families who have no other viable access to labor-intensive community-based mental health care?
  • Our specialty children’s mental health agency [North Shore Child and Family Guidance Center] works with approximately 68% non-Medicaid and 32% Medicaid and Medicaid Managed Care families? Would a viable VAP proposal look to severely restrict access to care for children in Nassau County who need our outpatient care?
  • It appears that you are supporting mergers. Is there any concern about what has come of the New York City-based PSCH takeovers in Nassau and Suffolk Counties?

I felt that I had to ask these questions since, in my attending one webinar after another sponsored by OMH’s Children’s Technical Assistance Center (CTAC), the issue of universal access to children’s outpatient mental health care is routinely skirted. The sole focus of OMH webinars, regarding children in need of mental health care, are Medicaid-eligible children. North Shore Child and Family Guidance Center is a proponent of universal access for children and their families. New York State is not.

On the issue of access to care, earlier in the year I asked Governor Cuomo about this and he directed my letter to OMH Commissioner Dr. Ann Marie T. Sullivan, who responded by stating that there is a work group looking into the issue of the non-Medicaid population. One outcome would be to get commercial insurers to increase their rates which, on average, are significantly lower than Medicaid rates. However, the State Department of Financial Services, within which the State Insurance Department is subsumed, does not have the authority to regulate commercial rates. Statute change, which is unlikely, would be required for this to happen.

Presently, commercial insurance network adequacy, including for behavioral health care, is monitored every three years by the Department of Financial Services. However, I think it is unlikely that this will lead to significant penalties that would bring about change for entities that do not provide adequate networks of care. After all, the health insurance lobby is well-healed and well-connected in Albany.

On the issue of mergers, a few years ago New York City-based PSCH took over Pederson Krag in Suffolk County and Peninsula Counseling Center in Nassau County, both well-established and well-respected community-based mental health agencies on Long Island. When a larger entity takes over a smaller one, the smaller one’s board of directors is dissolved and, at best, becomes an advisory committee, with a few select board members joining the larger entity’s board of directors. This is a step toward diluting the local community’s investment in the organization and its mission.

It appears that PSCH has given up on Pederson Krag and its clinics are being dispersed and made available to other interested parties. Will this also be the fate of Peninsula Counseling Center? What are the consequences of decades of dedicated professional and lay leaders building a community-based culture, and then having it demolished by a takeover by a $100 million dollar organization that did not take. And, so, I thought it was a reasonable question to ask the VAP moderator whose agenda would appear to promote mergers and takeovers.

What do you think?