Since the retirement of Missoula psychiatrist Dr. Noel Hoell in July, as many as 600 people from as far away as Butte have suffered without a primary mental health caregiver.
Last month state officials received word that the U.S. Health Resources and Services Administration has designated Missoula County as a Health Professional Shortage Area. Specifically the county has been deemed a low-income shortage area, which will benefit Missoula even more, says John Schroek, director of Montana’s Primary Care Office. The designation, he says, allows mental health providers in the county to apply for fiscal aid from the federal government.
For example, the feds can pitch in by repaying up to $25,000 of student loans for new primary care psychiatrists, which Schroeck says will help attract the doctors Missoula desperately needs.
Since late June the Mental Health Crisis Prevention Coalition, a group of concerned psychiatric patients in Missoula, has promoted a grassroots effort to alleviate the shortage of psychiatric care in Missoula.
Dan Morehead, one of the founders of the coalition and a former patient of Dr. Hoell’s, says he was shocked by how quickly the government responded to the crisis in Missoula.
Schroek credits the loud public outcry for pressuring the federal government to expedite his office’s request quickly.
“I have a set number of cases I can refer each year, and I have to prioritize them. This one seemed to be the most urgently needed,” he says. Normally the federal government may take up to six months to decide on a case, he said.
The designation as a shortage area will remain until enough psychiatrists arrive to handle the caseload and a new study of the county is conducted. That process may take months, if not years, to complete.
The fight is not over, however.
“[The designation] is not a silver bullet, and it’s not going to solve everything, but it can give recruiters a tool to use,” Morehead says.
But now, he says, Missoula is one step closer to solving the problem.