LAKELAND — Free mental health services, including medications, are now available to an estimated 84,000 low-income, uninsured Polk County residents, courtesy of the voter-approved half-cent sales tax for indigent health care.
Polk County has signed a contract with the behavioral health provider IMPOWER to bring tele-health services to uninsured Polk County residents ages 18 and older who meet income guidelines.
For those who do not have access to a smart phone, tablet or computer or are unfamiliar with technology, private, secure locations are being set up where an aide will be available to get them online for their consultations with a psychiatrist or counselor.
“We find the vast majority of people, even those with very low incomes, have a smart phone or have access to one,” said Amy-Erin Blakely, vice president of behavioral health for IMPOWER, an Orlando-based agency that has contracts across the state to deliver behavioral health services through telecommunications.
“People think, ‘I don’t have the skill level,’ but it is amazing how simple it is,” Blakely said. “It is a link that is emailed or texted to them. They click on the link, put in a code and they are on a high-quality video platform talking with their provider. It is very, very simple.”
IMPOWER partners with a pharmacy that guarantees free delivery of medications within 24 hours, either delivered to their home or sent through the mail in a HIPPA-compliant manner that guarantees privacy, Blakely said.
“This is the only contract IMPOWER has that includes payment for medication with no co-pay, and that is huge,” Blakely said. ″That is one of the things I was so excited about on this contract. We can provide behavioral health services all day long but if the clients do not have access to their medications it does not matter. This is huge. Go Polk County.”
In November 2016, Polk County voters OK’d extending for 25 years a half-cent sales tax to provide health care services for indigent residents. The sales tax raises approximately $40 million a year and pays for a wide range of healthcare services, including Polk County’s share of supplying Medicaid services.
The fee-for-service contract with IMPOWER funds up to $2 million worth of behavioral health services over three years to uninsured, Polk County residents whose income is at or below 200 percent of the federal poverty, said Marcia Andresen, director of the county’s Health and Human Services Division.
The income limits this year for a single person household to be eligible is $24,280; for a two-person household, $32,920; for a three-person household, $41,560; and for a four-person household, $50,200.
An estimated 13 percent of Polk County residents, or nearly 84,000 people, are uninsured, Andresen said, and most of them have income levels that would qualify for the program.
While telehealth services are especially useful to people who live in rural areas or who have transportation difficulties, the program is also available to provide convenient free access for people who are coming out of jail or out of inpatient facilities after Baker Act evaluations, Blakely said.
Residents who do not have online access will be able to go to convenient locations where secure, private computer access will be available, said Joy Johnson, relations manager for the county’s Indigent Health Care Division.
Lakeland Volunteers in Medicine’s telehealth site already is open and the county is negotiating operating sites out of other community partners’ medical clinics, including the Polk County Health Department and Central Florida Health Care, Johnson said.
While IMPOWER psychiatrists can prescribe most behavioral health medications via telehealth services, including controlled substances, they cannot prescribe narcotics, Blakely said.
Clients who require strong anti-anxiety medications, such as Xanax, or opioids such as methadone cannot get those medications through the program.
But the program will allow delivery of other needed medications to anyone’s home in Polk County. “We have even delivered to camps in the woods,” Blakely said.
IMPOWER was founded in 1994, moved into telehealth six years ago and last year shut down its brick-and-mortar sites, Blakely said. Board-certified psychiatrists, other medical providers and counselors work out of their homes or private offices to consult with clients, she said. The company is able to attract much-in-demand psychiatric professionals to work for them because of that work-at-home or out-of-their-office convenience, she said.
Because there is a severe shortage of psychiatrists in Florida, it is not uncommon for a new patient to wait eight to 10 weeks to be seen, Blakely said. “With telehealth, the wait is zero to two days,” she said.
“There are so many geographical barriers and transportation issues for clients,” Blakely said. “Especially in rural areas, it is such a hardship that people do not make it to their appointments, then do not get their medications.”
When people with serious mental illnesses are off their medications, they can end up being hospitalized or taken to jail. This program can help avoid that, she said.
Through its other contracts, IMPOWER has found about 70 percent of its services is psychiatric, providing prescriptions to behavioral health clients, and about 30 percent is counseling and therapy sessions, she said.
“We always refer clients for therapy as well as psychiatric services but not all people want that and it is not required,” Blakely said.