“Nobody knew that health care could be so complicated”  @realDonaldJTrump

We are 341 days and some change away from the presidential election which will determine the fate of healthcare in this country. The current president, Donald J Trump, campaigned in 2016 on the “repeal and replace Obamacare” platform. Although there was a flurry of activity which threatened to bring back the fear of preexisting conditions and the creation of an Obamacarelite product (perfect for those not planning on being sick) for the most part Obamacare remains intact. In fact one of the key components, Medicaid expansion, actually seems stronger than it did under president Obama.

As we gear up for the next election it seems that healthcare is once again getting the politician’s attention. The Republicans are still of the mind that “Obamacare doesn’t work” although they are unable to come up with anything better. The Democrats have pushed out seemingly hundreds of ideas. Though somewhat of a moving target, it seems that the ideas can be coalesced into “Medicare for All” (Sanders and Warren), “Medicare for some more” (most folks), and “Better Obamacare for some” (Harris and Buttigeig). What piqued my interest today was what I thought was an arcane mental health discussion. Senator Harris called to:

Repeal the Institutions of Mental Disease (IMD) exclusionThe IMD exclusion precludes Medicaid funding for adults receiving care in psychiatric facilities with more than 16 beds, and has also exacerbated a severe shortage of acute psychiatric care beds nationwide. Repealing the IMD exclusion will reduce the number of Medicaid patients who end up in already strained general hospital emergency rooms when they need acute psychiatric care.

I thought “This makes sense” until I saw this Vox article:

But on Monday, when Harris’s campaign rolled out its mental health policy plan, it had not been nearly so thoughtful. Harris seems to have gone all-in on attacking the freedom, dignity, and privacy of people with mental health conditions. People like me.

I have to admit, although I know little about the Senator, she does not strike me as THAT evil.

As it turns out, back in 1965 when Medicare and Medicaid were being designed, there were a lot of people in mental institutions that were being imprisoned for their mental illness. Congress, fearful of states using the new Medicaid money to build bigger insane asylums, created a mental illness exception for inpatient treatment. Any facility with more than 16 beds that exclusively treated mental illness was ineligible for Medicaid funding. Although there have been some attempts to repeal it, this exception has stuck over the years. In part because of fears of mental health advocates such as those expressed in Vox. In part because of fears of increased cost. From a demonstration project which included Alabama where the exception was waived:

“Overall, we found little to no evidence of MEPD effects on inpatient admissions to IMDs or general hospital scatter beds; IMD or scatter bed lengths of stays; ER visits and ED boarding; discharge planning by participating IMDs; or the Medicaid share of IMD admissions of adults with psychiatric EMCs.

Available data suggest, however, that increased access of adult Medicaid beneficiaries to IMD inpatient care would likely come at a cost to the federal government.

In short, we are likely to find ourselves where we have always been. Folks suffering from serious mental illness (including substance abuse) only able to use their Medicaid for treatment if they are not too sick. This is in part due to a fear that those who are functional have that they will be locked away rather than treated in the least restrictive environment. This is also reflects the reality that the feds fund “healthcare,” not the prisons and underpass encampments where folks with intractable mental illness are now found.

Nobody knew mental health care was THIS complicated…