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Unlock that door

May 22nd, 2017

My dad’s face got that look when all the locks clicked.  You know, that l-sure-didn’t-expect-this look.

We were there to see my then-12 year old son.  It was his 5th or 6th hospitalization so I had stopped noticing all the locks that had to be unlocked, then re-locked to let visitors in.  I was thinking about what to say, what I’d brought and had my fingers crossed that it would be a good visit.  When I saw my dad’s face, I knew I should have mentioned the locks.

It was the first time he’d visited an inpatient psychiatric unit.  I had gone each time my son was hospitalized, of course, and during the first two or three hospitalizations, my younger son had come along once or twice.  But now he was old enough to refuse and he dug in his heels. My mother had come before too, but this time she was under the weather and stayed home.  So, my dad volunteered.

In this state, there are only two ways that children get locked up.  Either they commit a crime or a doctor determines that they are a danger to themselves or someone else and need to be in an inpatient psychiatric setting.  Only those two settings are locked.

I got used to the routine of entering a psychiatric unit and leaving one.  Waiting for staff to deal with the locks, knowing they never let more than a few people inside at a time.  Once, when they were extra careful, I heard that a young teen had just run out of the unit when a large group was coming in for a visit.  She timed things right and made a run for it.  They were very careful after that.

It’s not easy for a child or teen to be admitted to an inpatient bed.  They have to meet the criteria of being a danger to themselves or a danger to someone else, your insurer has to agree and there has to be an available bed.  Young children, the same ages my son was during his first few hospitalizations, might hurt themselves (or try to) as well as act aggressively toward their parents or siblings.  Some teens, as they get older, may do more of one than the other.  The really terrifying part of it for a parent is that your child can have a nonstop focus on suicide or aggression that is so extreme or unrelenting that you feel you’ve tried everything and everything has failed.  You’ve failed.

It’s a big step to take a child’s liberty away.  They enter a structured, locked and contained setting in the hopes that treatment there will work.  Distractions are stripped away.  Your visits with your own child are limited.  You have to take it on faith that the treatment and setting are a good match for your child’s desperate needs.  Not all hospitals are the same, far from it.

Sometimes it’s the only way to keep a child safe.  Mothers have told me they’ve slept in front of their child’s bedroom door to make sure she doesn’t hurt herself during the night.  Fathers have told me they’ve kept their son in a separate part of the house, away from his siblings, till his aggression runs its course.  You can only do that for a short while or for a limited number of times.

But once a child or teen is in an inpatient bed, we are a lot more loosey goosey about the other end of their stay.  Some stays are short, maybe as short as three days.  Others are longer.  Pretty often, not a lot of attention is paid to discharge, to going home and back to school, until it’s staring you in the face. Those doors will unlock and your child will go home with you.

Sometimes children aren’t discharged until Monday even though they are ready to go home on Friday night or Saturday morning.  Some hospitals say they don’t discharge on the weekend while others say that if a child needs therapy, no one is open on Saturday or Sunday.  (Don’t they know it takes weeks – if you’re lucky – to get an appointment even if it’s urgent?) It really bothers me that we take that child’s liberty away for two more days, when they might be ready to be at home.  Lots of parents would also prefer discharge be on a non-work day and having two days before the pressure of school makes an impact can be a blessing.

Many kids are released without a decent plan.  They are released with a piece of paper, a prescription and few instructions.  Sometimes the prescription is for a medication that requires an insurance okay (also known as prior authorization), which is an additional obstacle.  Parents aren’t sure what to say to the school or what adequate aftercare should look like.  Pediatricians are often not kept in the loop and they are the medical professionals parents are used to relying on.  With a sketchy plan or none at all, you feel like you’re on your own.

There are memories that stay with you, good ones and awful ones.  Some are visual memories, like a beautiful beach on vacation or angry look from a teacher.  Some are scent memories like a turkey roasting at Thanksgiving or your mother’s perfume. They have the ability to take you back to a moment in your past.  The sound of the locks clicking shut on that hospital door is one of those for me.  When my dad gave me that we’re-not-in-Kansas-anymore look, I thought about how we throw our child’s safety, their liberty and our hopes and dreams for them all into the pot.  Then we make the best decision we can.

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Phone calls, phantom panels and advocacy

May 7th, 2017

The sign on the door said “closed” but did not explain. Further investigation revealed three clinics under the same management were closed by the court at a bankruptcy hearing. As any parent of a child with mental health problems knows, finding a child psychiatrist or clinical nurse is not an easy task. The need for a new therapist as well makes the task even more daunting.  

Cheryl started exactly where she was supposed to start, with a call to their insurance company. “Let us do a search” said the representative. Unfortunately the names they gave her were dead ends due to the doctor not accepting new patients, no longer working there, etc. So when she called the insurance company back with that information they said again “Let us do a search.” This process was repeated more times than Cheryl could count. With each search the options would be further away from her home.  She told the customer service representative “As long as I don’t have to hop a plane, I’m fine.” Still no luck. The insurance company’s list of providers seemed to be what is sometimes referred to as a “phantom panel,” names on a list that are not connected to an actual, available doctor or provider.

Six months after the clinic closed, Cheryl’s son still did not have services and his pediatrician said she was no longer comfortable prescribing his medications. The insurance company was not budging in expanding their panel because they said their panel was big enough. What had become an exercise in futility was fast becoming an emergency.

Cheryl reached out to me for support and guidance. First, I referred Cheryl to the local Family Resource Center. I knew they had the ability to do an expedited referral to an area clinic that was not in her network. Then one morning, coffee in hand, we sat at her kitchen table and called her insurance company. When they told Cheryl they would do another search, I got on the phone. I explained who I was and that Cheryl’s son needed an out of network provider approved. We explained that this had been going on for six months, that Cheryl had done her due diligence by calling all the names provided to her and that no one was available. I was able to explain the larger context:- that three clinics had closed leaving lots of people without services and a limited pool of potential providers more stressed than before. I also explained this child was a DMH client with serious mental health concerns and numerous hospitalizations. That he had not had a hospitalization in a couple of years probably at least in part due to the careful combination of services that he had been receiving. Further, that he had recently been showing signs of decline.

I then said receiving comprehensive mental health treatment was in fact medically necessary and that it was obvious that their in-network panel was not sufficient, at least not in this area at this time. I requested an out of network level of benefits be authorized. The representative was very receptive and took the necessary steps that resulted in a “single case agreement” being approved.

Parents often comment about how hard it can be to navigate through this confusing system. So often they say “I feel bad for people who don’t have the support.”  Cheryl says “I just kept asking for help but– I didn’t know all the right words to use.” This was coming from a parent who is a great advocate for her child. During the previous 6 months she talked to DMH, called doctors who were not on the list, tracked down the old doctor for advice and even talked to the newspapers, still she needed support.

Cheryl called me recently and gave me some news. The psychiatrist her son has been seeing now for over a year is leaving the clinic and they have not been able to find a replacement. They are recommending she start looking elsewhere. After telling me and the DMH worker she started where she knew she had to start, the insurance company. Once again she made that call.  “Let us do a search,” said the representative.

Nancy Collier is a Family Support Specialist in the Lowell Area. She was involved in advocating for mental health parity legislation in Massachusetts.

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