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Commentary: Bill would help social workers better care for the elderly

Out of sight, out of mind, a phrase we have heard sporadically thrown about, in this instance rings true. When pain, isolation, depression and dementia are locked away behind hospital walls, we fail to see the problem.

Our society, somewhere down the line, has shifted. It went from rendering respect to the wisdom of the elderly and compassion to the wounded, to creating concrete walls to house those who no longer hold the ability to physically produce. This, combined with other naturally caused conditions, has led to what we are now witnessing: a high prevalence of mental illness among our elders and disabled.

According to the Administration on Aging in 2014, there are 46.2 million people who are 65-plus, a number that is only growing and is projected to reach 83.7 million in 2050. Currently, about 15% of older adults suffer with some form of mental illness. Let’s do the math: 15% of 46.2 million means 6.93 million elderly individuals are suffering at this very moment.

That’s not the worst of it. Of those 6.93 million, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), only half of elders who report mental health problems are ever treated, and of those who need help only less than 3% are ever treated. Given the heavy stigma that is associated with mental health, it would seem to be the responsibility of the on-site delivery system to detect and respond accordingly. This system has not progressed to meet the needs of the ever-growing elderly population. It’s no wonder suicide rates are highest among this age group.

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The salient problem becomes clear: We are failing to attend to the mental health needs of our elderly, who in most cases are Medicare-covered. The question is, how can we fix it?

The solution requires that our delivery system be improved by removing barriers that have contributed to this plight of under-assessment. HR 3712, better known as the Improving Access to Mental Health Act, seeks to increase Licensed Clinical Social Workers (LCSWs) reimbursement rates from 75% to 85% of physician’s rates.

It also seeks to remove current reimbursement restrictions that are imposed on LCSWs in skilled nursing facilities (SNFs). This then translates into more readily available on-site critical health assessments and intervention services to detect and treat mental health issues early on, with no out-of-pocket costs to the patients. Early detection and treatment leads to a better prognosis and better quality of life overall.

In Martin Luther King Jr.'s letter from Birmingham Jail he wrote, “What affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” I urge you to take a stance and help the elderly. One day, most of us shall embody that position in society. So build a better future for us all, and press this issue by calling your local representative, Dana Rohrabacher (R-Costa Mesa), at (714) 960-6483.

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JENNIFER NAVA, who is getting her master’s in social work at USC, lives in Costa Mesa.


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