NEW PORT RICHEY — Across from the Good Samaritan Clinic, workers are busily preparing a new office with fresh carpet and walls painted in muted tones of plum, green and gold.
Directions for Mental Health will open the office on Meadowlane Street next month to provide help to the poorest residents with the greatest need.
"There's such a void of mental health services in Pasco County," said April Lott, the chief executive officer of Directions for Mental Health, the nonprofit agency that for 30 years has been headquartered in Pinellas County. The agency, which has 250 employees and 10,000 clients, has seen lots of patients commuting from Pasco County for counseling, help with substance abuse, depression and other mental illnesses.
That's why the Directions for Mental Health board decided to invest $50,000 into a 3,300-square-foot office in west Pasco County. Coincidentally, Hillsborough-based Mental Health Care Inc. recently opened its first Pasco office in Wesley Chapel. It will serve residents of east and central Pasco.
Mental Health Care officials could not be reached for comment, but the expansion of Directions for Mental Health creates 12 new jobs, with the potential for more as the operation grows.
"We hope to hire locally," Lott said, adding that slots range from psychiatrists to front office clerks.
Right now, Directions serves only patients on certain types of Medicaid, the government's insurance program for the poor. (Community Hospital, Baycare and Premier Community Healthcare also offer mental health services to people on Medicaid as well as private insurance.)
Lott said there is a huge need for mental health services for those who can least afford them — especially with high unemployment, a local suicide rate that is higher than the state average and the epidemic of prescription drug addiction, all in a geographically large land area with a bare-bones public transportation system.
One innovative way the agency plans to make services more accessible is through telepsychiatry. Through a computer monitor, patients can talk face to face with their doctors and get refills on their medicines.
"It's like Skype, only more secure," said Chantal LaPerle, the agency's director of operations.
Initially, the service will be used in the clinic's office so patients, most of whom have little or no access to transportation, will no longer have to commute to Pinellas doctors. However, Lott envisions that expanding to community gathering places such as libraries, one-stop job placement centers and social service centers. Eventually, as the technology is more widely available, case managers will be able to take the monitors directly to patients.
"The goal is be in patients' homes," she said.
Its acceptance is growing. Medicare and Medicaid now reimburse providers for certain types of care through telemedicine. More insurance plans are covering it, and many companies include it in employee benefits packages as a way to reduce overall health costs.
There is even a trade group, the American Telemedicine Association, which held its convention in Tampa this year.
Health experts said the additional providers will improve access and quality.
"Any time you bring in providers, especially in the mental health area, it's good news," said Dr. Marc Yacht, retired director of the Pasco County Health Department who has served on the board of the Good Samaritan Clinic and volunteers his medical services. "When unemployment is high, or people don't have very good jobs with benefits, there's a lot of frustration. There are a lot of dysfunctional families in Pasco."
Though mental illness affects all social classes, poor people are at a disadvantage because they can't get access to affordable treatment. Then their symptoms can result in child abuse or drug use, which in turn, get them in trouble with the law.
"These pills have been devastating for the past couple of years," said Circuit Judge Pat Siracusa, who sees the fallout from the bench.
He said additional mental health providers, especially if they provide couples therapy and anger management, can only help the situation.
"It certainly seems like there's a need," he said.