Mental health advocates fear care for a fragile population will decline if Wake County and UNC Health fail to reach a contract extension agreement to operate UNC WakeBrook, the mental health hospital in east Raleigh.
“I’m just devastated it’s come to this,” said Ann Akland, former president of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) Wake County and longtime advocate for mental health services. “I think it’s such an important part of crisis services in Wake County. It’s helped so many people, and it’s…just a great model.”
We have this wonderful program that helps so many people, and we can’t find the funds to keep it going.
Ann Akland, Mental Health Services Advocate
The county owns WakeBrook and UNC Health operates services at the facility. County funding for this contract is $14 million for the current fiscal year, which ends June 30. While this contract is set to expire on that date, UNC Health has agreed to provide inpatient and crisis assessment services for an additional year, and to provide certain other services through November of this year, which may allow a transition to a new provider.
Akland says UNC is the best provider for this facility because it has massive institutional support and can deliver high-level, integrated care. She says she is sad and angry that the contract was not extended.
“It was really a huge disappointment, you know? That’s probably another way to put it,” she said. “We have this wonderful program that helps so many people, and we can’t find the funds to keep it going.”
Akland is part of a group called Save WakeBrook, which is lobbying for the county and UNC to reach a resolution
Neither the county nor UNC has disclosed anything about ongoing contract negotiations, except to say that UNC has sent the county a new proposal, which the county is considering. Wake County Executive David Ellis says the county wants UNC to continue operating WakeBrook, but the county needs to look at mental health services in the county holistically. In addition to the $14 million from the WakeBrook contract, the county has earmarked an additional $19 million this year for mental health services for providers other than UNC.
“Nobody wants to see these services disappear,” Ellis said. “We need more behavioral health services, not less.”
The county commissioned a report to broadly analyze county-wide mental health care needs. This report will soon be available to County Commissioners. Ellis said the county likely won’t make any major decisions until it reviews that report.
While UNC says it is committed to providing mental and behavioral health care for adults, it says it has turned more specifically to treating children and adolescents. In December, UNC Health announced it would partner with the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services to convert a facility in Butner, North Carolina, into a 54-bed psychiatric hospital for children and adolescents. .
Doctors and health researchers across the country agree that the pandemic has accelerated a mental health crisis among young people.
“Since the pandemic, our state and our nation have grappled with a mental health crisis that afflicts our children and adolescents,” according to a statement released by UNC Health. “This is a crisis that has impacted every hospital emergency department in the state. As the state health system, UNC Health is working with state leaders and our Board of Directors to start solving this problem specifically.”
A busy story
UNC WakeBrook didn’t happen by accident.
In 2011, WakeMed Health made an unsolicited, and some said hostile, offer to buy Rex Healthcare from UNC Health. WakeMed CEO at the time, Bill Atkinson, argued that Rex was not providing his fair share of indigent, charitable care. This allowed Rex, he said, to benefit from patients with good health insurance, while WakeMed had to care for patients who could not afford to pay. UNC, the state health system, also benefited, he argued.
At the time, UNC Health was led by Dr. Bill Roper, who agreed to invest $40 million in mental health services in Wake County. Some $30 million of that commitment went into UNC WakeBrook, which opened in 2013.
If UNC were to leave this facility, it would be only a decade after pledging to invest in county mental health services.
Akland, the attorney who was instrumental in opening the WakeBrook facility, said if UNC leaves, it will mean a lower level of services. She congratulated the UNC for its operation.
“The difference at WakeBrook is that they’re there, trying to really make people better and then get them out. Instead of waiting for the insurance to run out and then no matter what, do- get them out,” she said. .
Wake County says it is working with Alliance Health, the entity that channels Medicaid money to providers, to find a new provider if the contract with UNC is not extended.