Guest Opinions

Uninsured mentally ill rarely get critical follow-up care in Idaho

Penelope Hansen
Penelope Hansen

As the mental health coordinator at the Boise Police Department, I see the devastating effects Idaho’s health care coverage gap has on our most vulnerable citizens. I work daily with Idahoans suffering from serious and persistent mental health illness, including veterans and people experiencing homelessness.

Sadly, most of these people do not have health insurance and can’t afford medical care. They are a part of the 78,000 Idahoans in the “coverage gap” who do not qualify for traditional Medicaid and earn too little to get assistance purchasing coverage on Idaho’s insurance exchange.

When people without insurance suffer from a mental health crisis, the burden of care falls on the emergency system: police, paramedics, emergency rooms, state hospitals and, all too often, jails. People in this situation typically get little follow-up treatment after their release. Repeatedly, they end up back in an ambulance or police car. I have seen too many people enter this turnstile and never truly receive the care they need. Too often their conditions worsen — a chronic cycle that for some ends in death.

Our health care system in Idaho is set up to treat these people in the most inefficient and expensive way possible, unduly straining the county and state indigent funds. If these Idahoans could get preventive and primary medical and mental health treatment instead, they would be able to escape the chronic cycle they are revolving through. We cannot continue to respond to these issues by defaulting to law enforcement and emergency treatment. We need to address problems before they reach a crisis point through mental health care delivered in a medical setting on a regular basis.

I recently spoke to a Boise police officer about the state’s health care system, and he said, “It is our duty to protect and serve, and in doing that we do not pick and choose who we protect and serve. Currently, we need to do better for many of our citizens.” Closing the gap would help our fellow citizens have a better quality of life and be able to contribute within our communities.

I hope the recently announced legislative work group, Healthcare Alternatives for Citizens, will find a complete solution to this coverage gap tragedy. It is critical that we stop relying on law enforcement and emergency treatment to care for Idahoans experiencing chronic mental health illnesses. It is up to our lawmakers to address these issues so that those in the coverage gap can start to get the comprehensive and ongoing mental health treatment and medical care they need. We must close the coverage gap in 2017.

Penelope Hansen also has worked as the director of psychological health for the Idaho Army National Guard, at the Idaho Department of Health Welfare and in the private sector. She is a licensed clinical professional counselor.