Kaiser Health Staff
Washington, DC, United States (KaiserHealth) – Gloria Brown didn’t get a good night’s sleep. Her husband, Arthur Brown, 79, has Alzheimer’s disease and had spent most of the night pacing their bedroom, opening and closing drawers, and putting on and taking off his jacket.
So Gloria, 73, asked a friend to take Arthur out for a few hours one recent afternoon so she could grab a much-needed nap. She was lucky that day because she didn’t need to call upon the home health aide who comes to their house twice a week.
The price of paying for help isn’t cheap: The going rate in the San Francisco Bay Area ranges from $25 to $35 an hour. Gloria Brown estimates she has spent roughly $72,000 on caregivers, medications and supplies since her husband was diagnosed four years ago.
“The cost can be staggering,” said state Assemblyman Jim Patterson (R-Fresno), author of a bill that would give family caregivers in California a tax credit of up to $5,000 annually to help offset their expenses.
A 2016 study by AARP found that the average caregiver spends $6,954 a year on out-of-pocket costs caring for a family member. The expenses range from $7 for medical wipes to tens of thousands of dollars to retrofit a home with a walk-in shower or hire outside help.
Diamond, 30, said she has been diagnosed with depression and anxiety and has landed in multiple ERs over the past decade when her symptoms spiked out of control. During those stays, she said, she often felt isolated and in the dark about her treatment. Doctors typically numbed her with medications and consigned her to a guarded room. “No one really talked to me,” said Diamond, who lives in Torrance, Calif. “It was like I was a caged animal.”
She had been living in a car and fighting with her boyfriend in late February when she decided she wanted to end her life. She tried jumping out of a moving car, and when that didn’t work, she grabbed a bottle of pills. She gets help for her mental health issues, but sometimes, she said, the stress becomes too much. This time, she was taken to a hospital emergency room in Torrance before being transferred to the San Pedro unit.
During her time in the behavioral health center – about 26 hours – she slept, received medications and met with nurses, a social worker and a psychiatrist. She said it was calmer than a regular ER, and the staff had time to talk, listen and help her through the worst of the crisis.
“I genuinely feel better enough to leave,” she said. “I haven’t been able to say that in a while.”
A Return On Investment
Zeller argues that the use of emergency psychiatric clinics is both humane and cost-effective. Research on the Alameda County model found such units can dramatically reduce how long patients spend in medical emergency rooms, and that about three-quarters of patients treated in the units can be discharged to the community rather than to inpatient care. That, Zeller said, can lessen the overwhelming demand for inpatient psychiatric beds and preserve available spots for those who truly require them. The model saves money for hospitals in part because the patients spend less time in emergency care.
“The return on investment is exponential,” he said.
In Montana, the Billings Clinic opened a psychiatric stabilization unit last April across the street from the traditional ER. Dr. Eric Arzubi, psychiatry department chair, said nearly 10 percent of the visits in the Billings Clinic emergency room involve people in psychiatric crisis. Since the new unit opened, wait times for psychiatric patients have dropped from about 10 hours to four hours, and fewer patients are being admitted to the inpatient unit. Arzubi said his staff isn’t trying to cure people of their mental illness but rather stabilize them and get them the care they need.
“Just like in the emergency room, you don’t get comprehensive care,” Arzubi said. “But you can stop the bleeding, you stabilize the patient and get them to the right level of care.”
In some cases, that means a transfer to an inpatient facility.
Staff at the San Pedro unit decided soon after Chantelle Unique arrived that she would be one of those patients. Unique, who is 23, has been diagnosed with bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. She had been dancing on the roof and speaking gibberish when her mother called 911.
Unique said she has had a hard time in regular emergency rooms. “There are a million people,” she said. For most of a morning at the San Pedro facility, she sat calmly watching TV, talking to nurses and eating spaghetti. But at one point, she started pacing and yelling at other patients. Nurses and security guards quickly surrounded her and persuaded her to return to her recliner and take additional medication.
Finding an inpatient bed for a patient like Unique with more progressed mental illness is not always easy, said clinical social worker Mark Tawfik. But he’s committed to finding a way. “We have to make sure we find them adequate resources,” he said. “Otherwise, they will come right back.”
For Price, the clinical supervisor, even when a patient requires a transfer for more intensive care, there’s satisfaction in knowing that person is headed in the right direction. If Unique hadn’t been brought in, Price said, she would have been out in the community, lost to her delusions, putting herself at risk of accident or arrest.
In the unit, staff made sure she was safe, Price said, in addition to providing “a warm bed, some food and some compassion.”
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