The utility room at Binkley Baptist Church in Chapel Hill quickly filled Thursday night as ardent members of Orange County’s Latinx community gather for a mental health public assembly. They were overwhelmingly concerned about the ongoing and ever-present mental health crisis in their community.
“We ask ourselves what keeps you awake at night?” Luis Royo, a deacon at the Thomas More Catholic Church, said he would open the event. “Latin leaders sounded the alarm.”
According to the National Mental Health Alliance, more than 18 percent of Hispanic or Hispanic adults in the United States experienced mental illness in 2020; year. However, the Hispanic community has been disproportionately undertreated, largely due to a lack of funding and bilingual care.
“[In the Latinx community]When our people muster up the courage to speak up, they often don’t find where to go. Unfortunately, this is a quiet crisis,” Royo continued. “The first place a Spanish person turns to for help is often churches, and when there are no institutions offering help in their own language, churches are the only place they can turn. Today may be the day that changes. More than a mental health crisis. We lost too many lives.”
For many years, undocumented immigrants and those in the Medicaid-supported Latinx community suffering from mental health illnesses, substance abuse, and developmental disabilities have relied almost entirely on a single local nonprofit, El Futuro, one of the few operating in Orange County. Providing mental health care to the undocumented and Latinx community.
However, Cardinal Innovations Healthcare Solutions, the managed care organization (MCO) serving Orange County in 2012, and El Futuro, which had to cover the cost of treating undocumented immigrants ineligible for Medicaid, due to ongoing problems with funding, the nonprofit organization closed. In 2015, the Carrboro location is putting the local Latinx community in a difficult position and needs help.
“We’re in a deep, deep hole, but that’s why we’re here,” Royo concluded. “We want to come out as a united community.”
Leaders from the nonprofit Orange County Justice United and the North Carolina Congress of Latino Organizations convened last week’s meeting. Several Orange County commissioners and representatives from Alliance Health—the MCO now responsible for administering publicly funded behavioral health care services to Medicaid members and the uninsured in Orange and four other counties—send a list of proposals put forward to better treat mental health. He joined the assembly to debate. Health within Orange County’s Latinx community.
But Orange County’s mental health crisis is not new. In 2013, the aforementioned Cardinal Innovations Healthcare Solutions was then responsible for distributing state and federal Medicaid dollars across a 15-county region including Orange and Chatham, the MCO’s excessive CEO salary, luxury board retreats, and allegedly sick patients. mismanagement of government funding, hoarding $70 million earmarked for its services. Cardinal Innovations has been accused of paying its CEOs more than $1.2 million more than the state allows, without obtaining proper approvals. Cardinal’s then-CEO Richard Topping reportedly received more than $600,000 a year in 2016, which is just over the government law mandated limit of $187,000.
Late last year, the North Carolina health department transferred responsibility for providing mental and behavioral health services to Medicaid patients from Cardinal Innovations to Alliance Health. But members in Orange County’s Latinx community are concerned about the transition.
“Tonight I beg our state representatives and Alliance Health leadership to take this very seriously, because this is a crisis,” said Diana Huerta, an Orange County resident who lost a family member to suicide eight years ago. “I can’t imagine all the pain he went through. Many people need help. We are crying for help.”
Huerta was one of three people who gave personal testimony at the meeting; two other participants said they were angry and frustrated by local leaders’ lack of initiative for community mental health.
“It didn’t happen by accident,” Katherine Ward, a psychologist and co-head of the mental health research team at Justice United, said at the event. “It was out of indifference”
Ward said the community no longer wants to settle for less than it deserves.
“Alliance Health has the opportunity to correct the mistakes of the past,” Ward continued.[but] To be recognized by the Alliance, we need to organize as a community and share a collective power. We need a concrete proposal and that’s why we’re here today, with clear and precise proposals.”
Ward continued by reading Orange County Justice United’s list of offers. First, the group calls for the creation and maintenance of a guide to mental health care for the Latinx community. Second, mental health requires more resources for group sessions (including workshops). Third, it demands investment in community health workers equipped to provide basic mental health services. And finally, the group wants community leaders to ensure that Orange County’s future Crisis/Voting Facility has bilingual, culturally sensitive staff and invests in the retention and recruitment of bilingual therapists.
Ward’s suggestions were met with applause. Orange County commissioners and representatives of Alliance Health soon took the stage.
“During the COVID pandemic, mental health needs for all of Orange County, the state, and the world have increased exponentially,” said Orange County commissioner Amy Fowler. “We’re all here tonight because we care and want to hear how we can serve you and all Orange County residents.”
Fowler, a pediatrician, shared with the room her daily experiences with patients with mental health problems and their struggle to find treatment.
Following the statements by Fowler and other local leaders, Alliance Health representatives, including Alliance Health COO Sean Schreiber, took the stage.
“The Alliance officially believes that one of the best things we can do in every community is to expand behavioral health services,” Schreiber said. “It’s a huge problem nationwide, not just in these communities.”
“As the local mental health authority and funder of services, we usually get a lot of offers,” he continued. “What I find encouraging about this proposal is that the initial demand is a good partnership and it’s really much easier to move forward with these kinds of initiatives when you have a good partnership.”
Marcus McFaul, a priest from Binkley Church, ended the meeting on a hopeful note.
“Today is a new day,” he said, opening his arms in prayer. “The light is out; the sun is out.”
Support independent local journalism. Join INDY Press Club To help us keep the fearless watchdog journalism and essential arts and culture news alive at The Triangle.
Comment on this story at: [email protected].