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Rural patients feel forgotten, health care leaders working on help

Florida ranks last in the nation for mental health care funding. That is an especially big problem for people living in rural areas like Hendry and Glades counties.

“We all watch the news,” Christina Devault said. “We all know mental illness is a serious problem not just in La Belle or Hendry County or Florida. It’s nationwide. It’s worldwide.”

Devault is a mental health patient living in Hendry County. She has been diagnosed with bipolar II, agoraphobia, obsessive-compulsive disorder and social anxiety. She is dealing with all of those mental health conditions on a tight budget.

“We are a one income family,” Devault said. “I stay at home and take care of the kids and home school.”

Devault depends on mental health providers who can serve patients with low cost, affordable health care. The problem is those providers have a hard time staying open in places like Hendry and Glades counties.

“It’s unfair that we in the sticks are just kind of abandoned and forgotten about,” Devault said.

Joe Hosick, a health care administrator, said Hendry Glades Mental Health Clinic closed after trying to merge when it realized it was running out of capital.

Hosick worked as the executive director of the clinic for 16 years. Until he said, changes at the state level affected how the clinic was reimbursed for serving low-cost patients, leading the business to close abruptly in 2015.

“I’m upset with the state,” Hosick said, “for not realizing that the rural areas are not that hard to serve.”

Linda McKinnon, president and CEO at Central Florida Behavioral Health Network, said access to mental health care in rural parts of Florida is complicated.

“We are required to serve people who don’t have insurance or any other means to pay for services,” McKinnon said.

People like Devault, who she has been in touch with over the lack of access here. She said Florida is not keeping up with population growth and inflation when it comes to paying for mental health care.

While she has continuously worked on getting more access to these areas and funding, she said the state still needs to invest $119 million to make up the gap that has grown since 2000.

“People need to speak up and say we need these services,” McKinnon said.

Legislative analysts say more than 400 mental health professionals are needed across the entire state, especially in rural areas like LaBelle.

“Recently, we moved to a telehealth model,” McKinnon said.

The model enables patients to talk with a counselor face-to-face over the internet. But that is not a perfect cure either. Especially in rural areas where Devault said they use.

“Satellite internet,” Devault said, “the wind blows, and the internet is out.”

The lack of a reliable internet connection can lead to a big problem in a severe situation.

“I don’t see telemedicine working out very well,” Hosick said, “unless they come out here and set up an office.”

But, McKinnon said that plan is already in the works. They are opening up several “spoke centers,” with a couple currently in place. It means people can go to an actual building and get help connecting with someone over the web.

It is a service McKinnon is working on expanding with more money as she works to close the gap and help patients like Devault.

How do I get to a telehealth center?

For people who cannot travel to those telehealth centers, there are ways to work around that.

The behavioral network is also developing a mobile crisis unit to help people in Central Florida. If you have or know of a person who has no insurance who needs behavioral health services, you can contact Impower, which is a program that can help in Hendry and Glades counties.

Access the Impower website here.

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