If you or someone you know is in immediate danger of harming yourself, please call 911. If you or someone you know is having suicidal thoughts, call the US National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 988 or text “WYO” to 741-741 for the crisis Text line.
CASPER, Wyo. — Wyoming Gov. Mark Gordon’s “Mental Health Summit” kicked off Tuesday morning at the Nicolaysen Art Museum in Casper.
“Building partnerships and expanding our collaborative efforts will help bring timely mental health services to those who have difficulty accessing help,” Gordon said in a press release from his office Tuesday. “To deal with the scope of the problem, we need to be actively engaged in finding solutions.”
As lawmakers arrived for the mental health summit Tuesday morning, the folks at Healthy Wyoming greeted them outside the NIC, urging Wyoming lawmakers to take action to expand Medicaid, arguing that more people’s access to health insurance is necessary if the state really wants to deal with mental health and other issues.
“We need Medicaid expansion so badly because it’s all a domino effect,” said Linda Jones of Healthy Wyoming. “Homelessness, drugs, cancer — it all just falls together. [Expanding Medicaid] it will help people so much. We really need that.”
Maureen Barnes volunteers not only at Healthy Wyoming, but also with organizations such as the National Alliance on Mental Illness of Wyoming, the Natrona County Suicide Prevention Task Force and the Natrona Community Health Trust. She and Jones also work with the Casper Council of Persons with Disabilities.
Wyoming has the highest per capita suicide rate in the country, Barnes said. Addressing suicide and other mental health issues is something a coalition of about 50 people in the Casper area is working on with the Natrona Collective Health Trust, she added.
“We have a model we’re working on here at Casper to help streamline [services for] people who need mental health help,” Barnes said. “We all work together with each other. There are about 50 of us who meet once a month. We have just formed a crisis intervention team that will meet later this week.
Barnes works with Advance Abilities to provide respite care to people with disabilities in the Casper area. This work and the volunteer work she does with various non-profit organizations in the community give her insight into how physical, mental and emotional health cannot ultimately be viewed in isolation as separate issues.
“We’re great big advocates that help people with their mental health and other issues that they have,” Barnes said. “Medicaid expansion is necessary and necessary. Otherwise, we cannot do it.”
While there are efforts to make mental health services available in a more streamlined way throughout the community, that work fails if people don’t have insurance to pay for services, Barnes said.
When people go to emergency rooms or hospital rooms without insurance, it can lead to medical bills they can’t pay. Uncompensated care puts a strain on the health care system and leads to financial risks that can threaten the future of hospitals, said Bella Pope of Healthy Wyoming.
Montana expanded Medicaid in 2016, and that created benefits beyond expanding health insurance to more people, Pope said.
“Their uncompensated care has gone down significantly,” Pope said. “Uncompensated care typically causes hospitals and community clinics to close or become understaffed. We in Wyoming are actually in quite a crisis – we’ve lost two different health centers in the last few years, as well as a maternity ward.”
Expanding Medicaid won’t fix everything that needs to be addressed in Wyoming’s health care system, Pope said. Still, she said she thinks it’s a necessary first step.
“It’s a really good first step in getting people the care they need,” she said. “When we think about Wyoming and we think about what the ultimate goal is — we really want affordable, accessible and effective health care.”
The survey shows there are about 24,000 people in Wyoming without access to any health care, Pope noted.
“It’s the inability to go to the doctor, it’s the inability to get preventive care in time before you use the emergency room as their doctor — which becomes expensive.”
The more expensive medical bills become, the more debt people face, Pope said. Jones added that he thinks expanding Medicaid could lead to increased tax collections because people would have a greater ability to make such payments if they weren’t saddled with medical debt.
Expanding Medicaid could offer health insurance to thousands of people in Wyoming who don’t have it, and it could also lead to lower premiums for people who do have insurance, Pope said. While the effect won’t be immediate, Pope said he believes the Medicaid expansion will reduce the need for health care providers to shift costs to those who can afford insurance to make up for the uncompensated care they provide to people without insurance. .
“There really is this inflation that we’re seeing in our health care market as a whole, and expanding Medicaid can really structurally help address that,” she said.
Wyoming is also leaving federal money on the table by not expanding Medicaid, Pope added.
When people don’t have health insurance to seek mental and physical help, it can lead them to self-medicate with alcohol or other drugs, Jones added.
“They need the medicine,” she said. “They’ll find him somewhere.”
While the Wyoming Legislature rejected an attempt to expand Medicaid during its 2022 budget session, Barnes said some of the lawmakers Healthy Wyoming volunteers spoke with Tuesday morning expressed support for the expansion.
While Medicaid hasn’t been expanded in Wyoming, Pope said there may be other options for people who don’t make a lot of money each year. She encouraged people to reach out to Enroll Wyoming, which offers free help finding available health care options.
“They’re one of the big reasons I was able to get health care last year,” Pope said.
The Governor’s Mental Health Summit will continue through Wednesday at the NIC. Although sold out, the summit can be streamed live via Wyoming PBS.
“The meeting agenda and link to the live stream are available here,” the governor’s office said in a press release Tuesday.