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Dr. Aldona Wos: Mental Health Reform Coming Soon in North Carolina

6:18 PM, Feb 22, 2013   |    comments
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An eight-year-old girl threatening to kill her mother, and her mother begging and pleading for someone to help: It's a story we brought you earlier this month.

The mother's quest to find mental health help for her child shined a light on North Carolina's confusing mental health system.

In an exclusive interview today, NC's new Secretary of Health and Human Services talked to WFMY News 2's Mark Geary about her plans to fix the system. 

Secretary Aldona Wos told WFMY News 2 she is planning a complete overhaul of the mental health system. She says the system is outdated and isn't working properly.

"Mental health is very confusing for the citizens, for the patient and for our communities. We don't really speak about mental health. It's not a topic at the dinner table for people. So, we're not quite comfortable, as a society, about the issue," Dr. Wos said.

Dr. Wos wants to increase awareness of mental health, and remind people mental illness is disease, just like any other illness. Plus, she wants to change the way we approach people who need help. Instead of putting people in two groups, physical needs and mental needs, she wants the system to recognize people don't always fall into just one category.

"At the end of the day, it's the same person, sometimes. We need to create a system where it's all encompassing, where we have one-stop-shopping and look at the patient as a whole, both the mind and the body," Dr. Wos said.

WFMY News 2 asked Dr. Wos for more specifics about what the plan for mental health reform will look like, but she said it's too early to give many details. However, it will likely involve computer upgrades and sweeping changes to Medicaid. We should learn more within the next few months.

Improving technology and changing Medicaid are the secretary's top two priorities.

Our state spends $13 billion a year on Medicaid. It amounts to about $36 million a day. Dr. Wos says the Medicaid system is broken, inefficient and needs to change right now.

However, when you talk about reforming Medicaid, you also must talk about technology. Dr. Wos says there is a fundamental reason why DHHS has become a mess: it's all because of outdated technology. There's also a common misperception you must choose between paying for computers or delivering services to people.

"That's a false argument. There comes a point where you're actually decreasing your return on providing services because of the manpower and the amount of hours and the inefficiencies in a given system," Dr. Wos said.

Right now, if someone calls looking for help, a DHHS worker often needs to dig into a filing cabinet, pull out a physical file, open it up, decipher someone's handwriting and then begin working on the case.

"The inefficiency in that and the ability to make a mistake is huge. All you need to do is file it in the wrong place or not have the right supporting service and it becomes an issue for you to provide the service for someone," Dr. Wos said.

Of course, there is not a pile of money sitting around to purchase new computers and software. But, Dr. Wos is looking at how the current system works and trying to figure out how to change policies and procedures to make the program more efficient, which should free up money for upgrades.

Secretary Wos is looking for any and all suggestions to improve her department. To submit your suggestion, visit the DHHS website.

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