Harrison County

‘Moving forward.’ Struggling Gulf Coast Mental Health is hiring, accepting new patients

Gulf Coast Mental Health is still accepting new clients while working to solve financial problems that almost shuttered the agency thousands of clients rely on.

The long-term health of the agency is still in question, however.

“We can’t fix what happened,” GCMH Commissioner Candy Murphy of Hancock County said in a board meeting Wednesday. “We’re moving forward.”

Murphy is one of four commissioners on the agency’s governing board, appointed by the boards of supervisors from member counties Harrison, Hancock, Stone and Pearl River.

“Will this happen again in 90 days?” a GCMH staffer asked Murphy.

“We don’t know,” Murphy said.

The agency has monthly expenses of around $1 million. It’s cash reserves have been drained, from 2.5 million in March 2018 to $121,000 today.

The precipitous slide happened on the watch of current board members and an executive team headed since 2016 by Shelley Foreman, who resigned under pressure in April and now works for another mental health region. The chief financial officer under Foreman also has resigned.

GCMH is one of 15 regions that comprise the state’s beleaguered community mental health network.

Recouping losses

Several employees from Region 7, based in West Point, are spending several days with GCMH staffers to straighten out billing errors believed to be a big part of the financial problems. The agencies are funded by state and county governments and grants, but most of their revenue comes from Medicaid reimbursements. Private insurers also are billed.

Richard Duggin, Region 7’s CFO, said codes for the software billing system at GCMH were changed, causing a cascade of errors in bills sent out. For example, someone with schizophrenia might have been inaccurately coded as a substance abuser, prompting denial of an insurance claim.

Codes changes apparently started just before September 2017, when, GCMH board minutes say, then-CFO Mary Jones told commissioners that a new billing manager had been hired “in an effort to increase our revenue by correcting billing code errors.”

However, Duggin said administration and billing seemed to run smoothly under the management team that left in 2016 and 2017. Region 7’s billing collection rate is more than 90%, while a recent month he examined at GCMH showed a collection rate of 23%.

Duggin said at least $325,000 in unpaid bills have been resubmitted, although GCMH does not expect to receive the full amount.

Jobs open

Before and after Wednesday’s meeting, Interim Executive Director Vickie Taylor and commissioners interviewed candidates for executive director and CFO jobs. GCMH also has openings for therapists, clinicians, psychiatric techs and other jobs.

The agency provides a wide array of services for the mentally ill and developmentally disabled, including crisis stabilization, and inpatient and outpatient substance abuse treatment. It even has group homes for the severely mentally disabled.

GCMH is always short-staffed, but the turnover rate increased under the recently departed administration, records show, and has continued because the agency’s future is uncertain.

One therapist who works with substance abusers said she has a caseload of 183, while another therapist in the agency said her caseload is 343.

Some of those, the second therapist said, are maintenance patients who do not need biweekly appointments, but many clients do. Therapists said clients have difficulty progressing if they can be seen only once a month.

Harrison County Supervisor Marlin Ladner has taken a hands-on role in seeing that the agency is turned around. He attended Wednesday’s board meeting, and has been in ongoing discussions with stakeholders about what happened and what needs to be done.

“I became concerned about it when they came to us and told us they had gone broke,” Ladner said. “I didn’t want to lose those services. Mental health is an important part of medical services.”

Anita Lee is a Mississippi native who specializes in investigative, court and government reporting. She has covered South Mississippi’s biggest stories in her decades at the Sun Herald, including the Dixie Mafia, public corruption and Hurricane Katrina, a Pulitzer Prize-winning effort. Nothing upsets her more than government secrecy and seeing people suffer.
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