“Actually, Kootenai Health agrees with those that are upset about our decision to temporarily close the addiction recovery program,” he wrote
NORTHERN IDAHO – Kootenai Health, the leading provider of behavioral health services for northern Idaho residents, has announced the temporary closure of their addiction recovery programs and the outpatient Kootenai Clinic Psychiatry practice due to staff and funding shortages, despite nearly $ 120 million settlement awarded to Idaho in a lawsuit against the nation’s three major pharmaceutical distributors.
In a press release on the matter, Kootenai Health’s chief executive officer, Jon Ness, explains, “As a result of this chronic underfunding, it is becoming increasingly difficult for standalone, individual providers like Kootenai Health and Heritage Health to provide the full scope of behavior services needed by our community. “
The largest barrier to operation seems to be insufficient staffing. As with national trends, many of Kootenai Health’s key providers in behavioral health have retired or departed, citing stress and burnout, staffing shortages, providers choosing to work remotely via tele-health psychiatry, and a shrinking number of new graduates entering the field in a shortage expected to last until at least 2027.
The estimated time to fill vacated positions is one year in the current job market, and the cost to hire just one temporary ‘locum tenens’ physician to cover the addiction recovery program for that timeframe is $ 1 million.
Ness acknowledges the upset this will cause in a time when addiction recovery and mental health support are so desperately needed.
“Actually, Kootenai Health agrees with those that are upset about our decision to temporarily close the addiction recovery program,” he writes in his statement. “The real discussion should be happening in Boise and Washington DC about raising funding levels for behavioral health programs and services.”
Changing the current underfunded model for health behavior would require voter and legislative support, especially in a time challenged by unprecedented hardship due to the pandemic and staffing shortages.
“Idaho is currently blessed with a budget surplus, so this may be a good opportunity for a serious conversation about improved funding for behavioral health services,” encourages Ness. “This would be very helpful to vulnerable individuals, families, schools, law enforcement, and behavioral health providers.”
At this time, Kootenai Behavior Health has not announced an estimated time for services to resume.
But for many who rely on these services, like Sasha Fisher, this is not merely an inconvenience. It’s life or death.
“It saved my life. And now it’s changing my life,” Fisher says.
Fisher is currently 9 days into Kootenai Health’s Intensive 21-day inpatient addiction recovery program, after alcoholism almost killed him.
“I came in out of necessity, almost. I was in the ICU for three days. I had a flirtation with suicide that did not go through, thank God. And in that moment, I had an opportunity [to meet] with the director, “he said.
But that saving grace might be short-lived, as he is in the last class before the program is closed.
Kootenai Health announced the closure Wednesday. Officials tell KHQ that it boils down to staffing and funding issues.
“Mental health treatment is complicated. It takes a lot of energy to maintain staff. It’s a high burnout field. The patients are challenging,” Cory Alexander, who was a psychiatrist with Kootenai Health said.
Kootenai Health officials say they have spent years trying to fix the problem but this is now what’s necessary.
“This is immoral. It’s not the right thing to do for our community right now. And I really wish it wasn’t happening,” she said.
Alexander, who worked as a psychiatrist at Kootenai Health for 8 years questions the timing in closing the most comprehensive program in our region right as we’re seeing an unprecedented number of overdose deaths.
“With the pandemic, the need for mental health care has increased,” she said. “That means that many, many people with severe mental health and chemical dependency issues will get worse, and some of those patients will die. I mean, these are lethal illnesses, if they’re not treated, and there’ll be a lot of pain and suffering for the community. “
Current employees have other opportunities within the hospital or can choose to resign. And for some who wish to remain anonymous, leaving is the only option.
“I was devastated to hear that. Our community can’t afford to lose more resources, especially for this population, mental health, and substance use, you know, we’re already losing providers,” a mental health provider at the hospital said. “This is just an example of you, in my mind, the wrong steps to take to address the problem.”
The length of the closure is still unclear, however, any time lost may come with a greater cost.
“This isn’t something people can just cold turkey and get off of by themselves. These are these are the kinds of substances that they need medical support, they need a lot of social support,” a mental health provider at the hospital said. “They need a continual, you know, continuously follow-up with people that are really helping them get off of these drugs.”
“There’s a line out the door for this. I just happen to be one of the people that got it. But that’s not the case for a lot,” Fisher said. “Relapse is real. It’s a disease. And I’m not sure what’s going to happen when this closes. But I believe that people are going to be using a chemical dependency service, now known as the emergency room.”
Employees will be moved to other parts of the hospital or can choose to resign.