Every year, thousands of Oklahomans with mental-health or addiction problems call or show up at state-funded treatment centers and get little or no care.
The message is: Until you get sicker, you will get minimal help from the state.
That’s because Oklahoma’s mental-health system relies on a “triage” approach that limits most subsidized treatment to the seriously ill.
The result is that many people are going without early intervention and then are seeing their troubles grow worse, mental-health officials and providers say. Those Oklahomans will often need more extensive and costly treatment later and could end up in prison or jail.
State officials say they face a dilemma. While the number of mentally ill people needing state-paid care has climbed, state funding for core treatment services has fallen. If the state spreads its money around more to increase preventive services, the most severely ill will receive less intensive treatment. That includes people with illnesses such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.
“We have to serve those most in need because we have limited resources, so that’s how we have to prioritize,” said Terri White, commissioner of the Oklahoma Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services. “What that means is you go without until you get sick enough – which is a horrible way to do health care.”
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