Mental health advocates worry that care for a fragile population will decline if Wake County and UNC Health can’t reach a contract extension agreement to operate UNC Wakebrook, a mental health hospital in East Raleigh.

“I’m devastated by this,” said Ann Ackland, past president of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) Wake County and a longtime advocate for mental health services. “I think it’s an important part of Wake County’s crisis services. It’s helped a lot of people, and it’s … just a wonderful model.”

We have this great program that is helping so many people and we just can’t seem to find the funding to keep it going.

Anne Ackland, advocate for mental health services

The county owns Wakebrook, and UNC Health manages services at the facility. County funding for the contract is $14 million for the current fiscal year, which ends June 30. While that contract is set to expire on that date, UNC Health has agreed to provide inpatient and crisis assessment services for an additional year and some other services through November of this year, which could allow for a transition to a new provider.

Ackland says UNC is the best provider for that facility because it has extensive institutional support and can provide high-level integrated care. He said he was saddened and angry that the contract had not been extended.

“It was a really huge disappointment, you know? That’s probably another way of expressing it,” he said. “We have this great program that’s helping so many people and we just can’t seem to find the funding to keep it going.”

Oakland is part of a group called Save Wakebrook, which is pushing the county and UNC to reach a resolution.

Neither the county nor UNC has disclosed anything about the ongoing contract negotiations, other than to say that UNC has sent the county a new proposal, which the county is considering. Wake County Manager David Ellis said the county wants UNC to continue operating Wakebrook, but the county needs to consider mental health services as a whole in the county. In addition to the $14 million in the WakeBrook contract, the county budgeted another $19 million this year for mental health services from providers other than UNC.

“No one wants to see these services go away,” Ellis said. “We need more behavioral health services, not less.”

The county created a report to comprehensively analyze the mental health care needs of the entire county. That report will be available to county commissioners soon. Ellis said the county is unlikely to make any major decisions before reviewing the report.

UNC-Wakebrook's watch includes a 12-step recovery program.

UNC WakeBrook’s watch includes a 12-step recovery program.

Although UNC says it is committed to providing mental and behavioral health care to adults, it says it has become more specialized in treating children and adolescents. In December, UNC Health announced it would partner with the NC Department of Health and Human Services to convert a 54-bed inpatient psychiatric hospital for children and adolescents in Butner, NC.

Doctors and health researchers across the country agree that the pandemic has accelerated the mental health crisis among young people.

“Since the pandemic, our state and nation have grappled with a mental health crisis plaguing our children and adolescents,” UNC Health said in a statement. “This is a crisis that has affected every hospital emergency department around the state. As the state’s health care system, UNC Health is working with state leadership and our board of directors to specifically address this issue.”

Accused history

UNC Wakebrook didn’t happen by accident.

In 2011, WakeMed Health made an unsolicited, and some said, bid to buy Rex Healthcare from UNC Health. WakeMed’s CEO at the time, Bill Atkinson, argued that Rex did not provide its fair share of poor and charitable care. That allowed Rex, he said, to profit from patients with good health insurance, while WakeMed had to care for patients who couldn’t pay. UNC, the state’s health system, has benefited from it as well, he argued.

UNC Health at the time was led by Dr. Bill Roper, who agreed to invest $40 million in mental health services in Wake County. About $30 million of that pledge became UNC Wakebrook, which opened in 2013.

If UNC gives up that facility, it will be just over a decade after it pledged to invest in mental health services in the county.

Ackland, the advocate who was instrumental in opening the Wakebrook facility, said if UNC were to leave, it would mean a lower level of service. He praised UNC for how they operate.

“The difference with Wakebrook is that they’re out there, really trying to make people better and then get them out the door. Instead of waiting until the insurance runs out, and then getting them out the door no matter what,” he said. . .

Wake County said it is working with Alliance Health, the organization that delivers Medicaid payments to payers, to find a new provider unless the contract with UNC is extended.

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