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Baltimore’s pilot project in outpatient civil commitment

Novel program has gotten off to a rough start


No topic is quite so controversial in psychiatry as outpatient civil commitment.

Dr. Miller is coauthor of “Committed: The Battle Over Involuntary Psychiatric Care” (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2016), and assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore.

Dr. Dinah Miller

We all value the right to make our own medical decisions, perhaps even more so when it comes to issues of mental health. The concern, however, is that some patients lack the ability to see that they are ill, and their refusal to participate in treatment leads them to repeated involuntary hospitalizations or to behaviors that result in their incarceration. Mandated care for forensic patients – those who have ended up in the criminal justice system – is not as controversial, but for those who have committed no crime, the legislative struggles can get very heated. Add to that the cost of implementing outpatient civil commitment (OCC), the difficulties in enforcing the orders, the call to include an array of services for participants, the difficulties in ascertaining if these mandates are successful in helping patients live better lives, and the fact that treatment doesn’t always work, then what seems like a simple solution to the problem of noncompliance is actually quite complex.

Maryland is one of four states that does not have OCC. In 2017, it was announced that the city of Baltimore would begin an OCC pilot program. The program, administered by Behavioral Health System Baltimore (BHSB) in partnership with numerous other mental health organizations, has had several fits and starts. The program initially was funded by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), and the grant required the program to serve a minimum of 75 patients. However, it was soon discovered that there were no written regulations, and that began a 1-year delay while regulations were written, including two periods for open public comment. Once set, BHSB needed to let local hospitals know the program existed and solicit referrals.

When it became clear that they would not be able to serve 75 individuals, BHSB elected to give its funding back to SAMHSA, and a second 3-month delay ensued until the state of Maryland picked up the cost. The Baltimore pilot project in OCC is different from other civil commitment programs. The criteria for inclusion are brief: The patient must be aged over 18 years, be a resident of Baltimore, and must have been retained by a judge at a hospital inpatient civil commitment hearing at least two times in the past year because of noncompliance with outpatient treatment. The referral needs to come from the inpatient unit before the patient is discharged, and entails a “settlement agreement” with a judge, typically the same administrative law judge that visits the hospital weekly for the inpatient commitment hearings. A connection is made with the patient prior to discharge from the inpatient facility.

The Baltimore project also differs in many ways from traditional outpatient commitment programs in other states. In this program, the patient is not mandated to treatment. Instead, the patient is required to meet with the program’s peer-recovery specialist. The recovery specialist provides support for the patient after discharge, facilitates engagement in both psychiatric and somatic medical care, and helps with transportation to appointments. Services for each participant continue for 6 months; the initial SAMHSA grant was for $2.8 million for 4 years.

Nicole McGill, the program’s monitor notes: “When people are repeatedly hospitalized, it signals to us that maybe the system hasn’t been doing what it needs to do. For those people, the OCC pilot aims to be the connection to existing services in the community.”

Of the 19 people who have been referred to the program since October 2017, 9 have been accepted. Six of those patients enrolled voluntarily; three were ordered into the program against their will. Of those three, one patient has refused to meet with the peer-recovery specialist. That patient, however, is enrolled with an Assertive Community Treatment and is not someone who is refusing psychiatric treatment. That patient was enlisted with the hope that more engagement might prevent future hospitalizations.

“We didn’t want to create a program that forced people into treatment,” said Adrienne Breidenstine, vice president for policy and communications for BHSB. “Those programs don’t work. If a program participant chooses not to engage in services, the OCC peers will step up their engagement. There are no punitive or legal consequences; they aren’t brought back to the hospital or taken to jail.”

So far, the program has been well received by its clients. Feedback is solicited through the Mental Health Association of Maryland. One client provided a testimonial saying: “I didn’t know there were so many resources out there. They took me to the food co-op and gave me free sheets. I got a fan. They didn’t waste time getting me that. It helped a lot with the heat. They get me to appointments. They helped so much.”

This fall, BHSB is expanding its services; as of Sept. 9, 2019, any Baltimore resident who is currently hospitalized and has been hospitalized at least one other time in the past 12 months will be eligible for the outpatient “commitment” program; there will no longer be a requirement that these inpatient stays involved retention at a civil commitment hearing or that the patient ever had an involuntary status. Patients who have not been committed to the hospital, however, will only be able to enter the program on a voluntary track.

This model of OCC is a bit of a misnomer: Most of the patients are in the program voluntarily, and they are not being required to go to treatment or take medications. It is a way to get a higher level of service to the sickest of patients who have needed repeated hospitalizations without the objections that get raised when patients are mandated to care. Given the distress that involuntary hospitalization causes, it may well be helpful to expand a voluntary offer of services to all patients who are retained at a hearing, even if only once; perhaps the added support could prevent future decompensations.

For now, the program has had a rough beginning, and the expense is hard to justify for so few patients. For advocates who support outpatient commitment, this program does not go far enough, as there is no requirement to take medications and no consequence for refusal to participate. As the criteria for inclusion are loosened to include those who are repeatedly hospitalized on a voluntary basis, it will be interesting to see if hospitalizations can be prevented and if the quality of life can be improved for these patients.

Dr. Miller is coauthor with Annette Hanson, MD, of Committed: The Battle Over Involuntary Psychiatric Care” (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University, 2016). She has a private practice, and is assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Johns Hopkins, both in Baltimore.

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