Phone lines down, offices empty: Mental health services are closing and Minnesotans don’t know it
The door to suite 2B-5 is locked. The phone rang and rang but no voicemail messages came in.
The office, located in the basement of an old Victorian house in Minneapolis, is listed in state records as an open and active substance use disorder treatment program.
But the woman who provides these services has not been seen for months.
“I think she’s back in London,” said a neighbor who also works in the building.
The treatment provider is one of more than a dozen programs that a recent five-year investigation found were not operating despite being listed as “active” in a national database that is supposed to track care providers in real time.
That means the Minnesota Department of Human Services (DHS) doesn’t really know which businesses are actually providing care, even as the state grapples with increased demand for mental health and substance use disorder treatment programs.
While the Department of Homeland Security has downplayed the disparity, health care providers and patient advocates say it adds uncertainty and confusion to a system already in crisis.
“We have no backup plan if the safety net collapses,” said Jin Lee Palen, executive director of the Minnesota Association of Community Mental Health Programs.
Phone lines are down, offices are empty
According to DHS, there are more than 440 licensed substance use disorder treatment providers operating and serving clients across the state.
“There are many programs running and serving Minnesotans every day,” said DHS Assistant Secretary Eric Grumdahl.
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But in September, 5 INVESTIGATES surveyed more than 260 businesses in the DHS database and found that at least 15 locations were closed or did not appear to be open.
The phone number was disconnected.
The address listed on the permit resulted in vacant office space.
Several other health care providers confirmed they stopped seeing patients weeks ago.
These include two projects that ended last summer after nearly three decades of providing care.
Brian Sammon opened Options Family and Behavior Services 27 years ago. Day treatment programs serve youth with severe mental health problems and substance use disorders.
Secure facilities in Burnsville and Roseville help children who no longer need hospital-level care but are not yet able to return home full-time. Participants spend three to four hours a day with licensed staff, five days a week.
“If these kids don’t get this, they’re going to be back in the hospital, suicidal, running in the streets, all kinds of things,” Salmon said.
Since the start of the pandemic, demand for intensive programs, especially for children and adolescents, has increased dramatically. In Minnesota, health care providers are reporting record numbers of children with behavioral health issues being taken to hospitals with nowhere to go.
Salmon is proud that he and his staff are able to fill this gap for families in need.
But the past three years have taken a toll on his business and budget. The Legislature increased treatment reimbursement rates for mental health programs by just 3% this year.
“The wages we pay our employees have increased by 30 percent in the past two years,” Sammon said. “I can’t afford it yet.”
Pallen, who represents dozens of mental health programs across the state, said providers are experiencing a “perfect storm.”
Low reimbursement rates, combined with the workforce crisis brought about by the pandemic, are forcing healthcare providers to make difficult decisions.
In June, Sammon announced the closure of two Options stores.
“It’s a bit like attending a wake or a funeral that lasts two or four weeks,” he said in an interview in July. “It’s always just ‘Bye, bye, bye.'”
As of this week, those plans were still listed in the state’s database.
“The proportion is very small”
During a nearly half-hour interview, Assistant Commissioner Grumdahl declined to comment on specific plans.
“We know that currently unlicensed programs represent a very small proportion of the total number of programs that are running,” he said.
Grumdahl added that service providers are not legally required to report when a shutdown occurs.
But Salmon said he did notify the Department of Homeland Security that he would permanently close the option. This was a choice he never thought he would make.
“At some point, retirement will come, [I’d] Find another provider like me who’s willing to take over and transfer to them,” an emotional Salmon said. “It’s never been closed. “
He never did, according to a national database.