MENTAL DISCONNECT: Patients getting lost in Iowa healthcare tran - KWWL - Eastern Iowa Breaking News, Weather, Closings

MENTAL DISCONNECT: Patients getting lost in Iowa healthcare transition

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LINN COUNTY (KWWL) -

On a quiet county road, just North of Cedar Rapids, sits the Abbe Center for Community Mental Health.

For years, it was home to about 100 patients with mental illnesses. Among them was a 65-year-old man named Wayne, who has Tourette's, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, and Schizophrenia. He is also bipolar.

"Socially, he tends to be somewhat of an outcast because of his symptomatology," said Larry Maiers, Wayne's legal guardian. "And so the Abbe provided him a community. It provided him support, guidance, a family, and a community of friends."

In Iowa, counties used to pay for mental health care services from local tax dollars. This was problematic for some. In 2012, Linn County was facing a $5.4 million budget deficit, so they cut Abbe's funding by $1.4 million, or about 60% of their budget.

On October 1, the Center closed.

"That last straw probably came with the uncertainty of regionalization, and what the regions are really going to pay for in relation to residential services," said Dan Strellner, President of Abbe, Inc.

Instead of each county paying for mental health care, now, Iowa is setting up multi-county regions. It's a push to make sure rural Iowans get the same access to care as those in metro areas.

"Providing good mental health care is important to Iowans because that is our job," said Renee Schulte, a former State Representative. "For people that cannot care for themselves, there is no one else to take care of them if we don't."

Legislators knew regionalization would be a tough policy to implement, so they built in a $13 million transition fund.

"The governor vetoed that," said Senator Jack Hatch, (D)-Des Moines. "It created a shockwave through the whole community because it really made people feel that we didn't live up to our promise."

Hatch is also planning to run for governor against Branstad next year.

But Branstad's office said the transition money wasn't necessary.

"The $115 million investment, in addition to the coming Iowa Health and Wellness Plan, made the additional $13 million state funds outside the best interests of hard working taxpayers at this time and were vetoed from the bill," they told KWWL in an email.

Strellner said the money wouldn't have kept the Abbe Center open, but it would have left more time to find better placements for patients. As it stands, they were rushed. That meant eight patients left the facility -- against medical advice.

"We have really done them a disservice," said Dr. Alan Whitters, Director of Mercy Behavioral Health in Cedar Rapids. "Ultimately, it will cost our society ... The problem is that, with many of these folks, is they end up in jail."

And now, Strellner said there is a gap in services.

"When you don't have those options for people when they need them, obviously, they have to go somewhere else, which could be a homeless shelter, could be jail, could be to the streets." Strellner said. "It could be to a facility far away from their family or support systems."

That's what happened to Wayne -- when the Abbe Center closed, he was sent to a Johnson County facility.

"It's really problematic that these people were moved, because they lost a family," Maiers said. "They lost companionship. They lost a comfort zone."

The regional mental health care system doesn't go into full effect until July 1, 2014, so there's still time to overcome these growing pains.

"I am very optimistic and very hopeful that as we move forward this is going to correct itself," Schulte said. "But is has been a rough transition and it has been tough on some people that we are trying very hard to protect."

"I think overall, this in combination will be a vast improvement," Whitters said. "The problem we have right now is we're not having the transition funds."

But either way, the Abbe Center is still closed, and Maiers isn't happy.

"We put a dollar amount on these people, and because we didn't have enough money, now we're sending them all over the state," he said. "That's what troubles me."

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