‘Managed care’ pilot coming to mental health

First came the closing of a state psychiatric hospital in Rome and the creation of community mental health services in the area.

Now mental health services may be revamped further in the North Georgia region, this time with a version of managed care.

The state is designing a pilot program for the 31-county region that would combine the functions of a crisis telephone line and the authorizing and paying for mental health services under one roof. Currently those functions are split among different organizations.

By consolidating those three functions, ‘‘we can provide a better level of care and do so more efficiently,” said Dr. Frank Shelp, commissioner of the state Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities.

The program, which is expected to begin about a year from now, will involve mental health and addictive-disease services, and will deliver only the care paid for by state funds, not Medicaid.

Shelp said Wednesday that the first priority is to target the seriously mentally ill — people who go to hospital emergency rooms, end up in jail or become homeless because of their mental illness.

The use of a managed care system like an HMO — but without the same fixed-rate payments per patient — would make it easier for the state to measure how well the services are working for patients, Shelp said.

The pilot program is part of a five-year process of transforming the mental health system in the state, following Georgia’s agreement last year with the U.S. Department of Justice to move people from mental hospitals into community living situations.

The DOJ accord — hailed by consumer advocates as a model for other states — aims to increase community services across the state, including housing, crisis teams and stabilization units, so people with disabilities can avoid the need for hospitalization.

The Rome area has been at the forefront of the changes, with the closing of Northwest Georgia Regional Hospital and the installation of crisis services and new housing for people with mental illness.

A consumer advocate in the Rome area, though, said Wednesday that it’s still difficult for some people with mental illness in the area to get help in a crisis or to obtain housing. There are also backlogs of people with mental illness in the region’s county jails, said Bonnie Moore of the National Alliance on Mental Illness chapter in Rome.

Responding to a question about the pilot proposal, Moore said, “We’re not sure exactly what it entails.’’

Shelp acknowledged there are still problems in mental health care systems in the state. He also said of the pilot program, “We understand people will have questions. Change is always a struggle.’’

He and other state officials have looked at services in other states, including Arizona and Virginia, as a model for the pilot program.

Ellyn Jeager, public policy director of the consumer group Mental Health America of Georgia, said the program could produce improved results for people with mental illness.

‘‘If it’s done right, the state will have a much better idea of what the outcomes are,’’ she said. “It should lead to better services and better data.”