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Shortage of psychiatrists in El Paso puts patients at risk

Shortage of psychiatrists in El Paso puts patients at risk

Seventy-nine percent of all mass shootings in the United States since 2011 have been linked to mental illness. That's according to the Central Florida Intelligence Exchange. Not all people suffering from mental illness harm others, however. Some hurt themselves.

“I have bipolar disorder. I was diagnosed five years ago. I was diagnosed when I tried to kill myself,” said peer support specialist Abraham Samaniego.

What is frightening for people such as Samaniego is that they cannot always get help right away. There is a major psychiatrist shortage in the United States, and especially in El Paso.

“We have a dire need. Right now, I think we have less than 15 practicing psychiatrists in a population of almost 1 million people,” said Emergence Health Network CEO Kristi Daugherty.

Emergence Health Network Psychiatrist Angel Marcelo Rodriguez-Chevres says the shortage means longer wait times for people who could be in or close to a crisis.

“I would say it would easily take you six to eight weeks to get a regular appointment,” said Chevres.

Wait times in the private sector can be three to six months, making it dangerous for people who need to get in right away.

The risk is that they can kill themselves,” said Samaniego.

Health care workers say the lack of psychiatrists in El Paso is caused by several issues.

“A lot of the psychiatrists in this case are not bilingual.They do not speak Spanish so it is difficult to bring someone to El Paso,” said private psychiatrist Jesus Raul Jimenez.

“The big thing for El Paso is the salary. We are competing for M.D. psychiatrists against salaries that this community cannot afford,” said Daugherty.

“By the time they qualify to get a Texas license, some other states are more lenient with getting that license, so they might be licensed elsewhere and already have offers,” said Chevres.

“It is having medical students choose psychiatry,” said Daugherty.

There has been some progress in the fight to keep wait times down for mental health patients, but it has been slow.

“We were able to pass legislation for student loan forgiveness for medical students who choose psychiatry,” said Daugherty.

Last year, El Paso County closed its mental health care program and now they contract through Emergence Health Network. Currently, they pay the network around $ 1.3 million a year for services. So I went to county commissioner and EHN vice-chair David Stout for answers.

“Why not allot more money so that you can recruit more psychiatrists?” asked CBS 4 anchor Jessie McDonough.

“That is something that maybe we need to look at,” said Stout.

Stout says the County Commission is willing to negotiate pay. He says the real problem is that a lot of private psychiatrists will not accept patients who are on Medicaid because reimbursement rates are so low.

So I called up state Rep. Joseph Moody. The state gives EHN $21.8 million.

What are you doing to raise how much reimbursements are for Medicaid, because a lot of private psychiatrists will not even accept Medicaid because the reimbursement is so low?” asked McDonough.

“That is a big part of it. We have passed a bill this session dealing with parity in mental health care, specifically for the Medicaid population,” said Moody.

“Would you consider trying to get the state to give EHN more money so that they could pay their psychiatrists more to recruit them?” asked McDonough.

“Part of what we are doing this session is moving more money into mental health care delivery system so that is a piece of the puzzle,” said Moody.

Both Stout and Moody say the psychiatrist shortage is only going to get worse because the need continues to increase, but psychiatrists continue to retire.

Stout says they are trying to think outside of the box to fill the need so that people such as Abraham Samaniego who suffer with mental illness can get help before it's too late.

“We have a number of medical schools in Juarez that are turning out psychiatrists,” said Stout.

“I made it. But what if I hadn’t? I wouldn't be here talking to you right now," said Samaniego.

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