It has been 16 months since Hurricane Michael tore through Northwest Florida, and the recovery process is ongoing.
It will take years to rebuild the homes and businesses, but the Category 5 storm caused more than material damage. It also took a substantial toll on the mental health of those who experienced its devastation.
Helping Floridians recover from the storm has been a massive undertaking — many programs have been launched to increase access to mental health care, including in schools. Still, the health care needs in Bay and surrounding counties are vast and complicated by the fact that many providers have left the region because they, too, lost their homes in the hurricane.
While health care needs have risen and health care organizations continue to grow and rebuild, access to care is still an issue, and behavioral health is one of the most significant community needs.
Ascension Florida has been providing care in the area for the better part of a century, and those roots — combined with their infrastructure in the area — have allowed them to maintain a stable presence post-Michael.
The Sacred Heart Health System spans 200 miles of the Gulf Coast from Pensacola to Apalachicola, operating four hospital campuses, a children’s hospital, physician offices, a skilled-nursing facility and several outpatient centers.
As other providers have exited the region, Ascension role in providing behavioral health has increased substantially.
“In my experience, I’d say at least half of our emergency room patients right now are struggling with depression,” said Dr. Doug Scott, Emergency Department Director at Ascension Sacred Heart Bay.
Scott’s comment came as the emergency room at his hospital had eight patients waiting to be transferred to a behavioral health facility. The nearest one is 2 hours away.
The influx of patients with behavioral health needs isn’t only stressing the emergency department. Primary care providers in the Ascension Sacred Heart system have also seen a sharp increase at their practices.
“In my family practice, I am seeing more patients with PTSD, from people who stayed here during the storm and more with anxiety and depression because they can’t get their lives back together as quickly as they want. We have seen a real uptick in patient need and at the same time a decrease in access,” said Dr. Rachel Bixler, a family medicine physician at Ascension Sacred Heart Gulf and regional medical director in Gulf County, Florida.
Dr. Bixler’s practice is one of two Ascension primary care centers located in Gulf County and in addition to serving that county and the Port St. Joe area, they are also treating more patients from Mexico Beach and Panama City. Bay County experienced a great loss of family practice clinics in Hurricane Michael and many have not returned.
Dr. Amer Malik, Chief Medical Officer at Ascension Sacred Heart Bay, says “30% more patients in my office today are depressed compared to before the storm”.
Access is a problem, according to Dr. Malik, particularly the lack of psychiatrists in the area.
“These folks have lost their belongings, lost their homes, and lost their jobs. And then they get sick. It is the last straw for them, and we have very few who will treat them for depression and anxiety,” Malik said.
As the health care needs of the Forgotten Coast have risen, so too have the needs of Ascension.
In the 2019-20 budget, Ascension Florida — including Ascension Sacred Heart Pensacola and Ascension Sacred Heart Bay in Panama City — lost $9 million in state funding.
The money, known as Disproportionate Share Hospital funding, helps reimburse qualifying hospitals that serve a large number of Medicaid and uninsured individuals.
As the largest nonprofit health care system in the state, and indeed the world, Ascension Healthcare is a faith-based health care organization dedicated to providing health care that leaves no one behind, spending millions of dollars each year caring for the poor and uninsured.
Ascension has continued living out its mission unabated despite the loss of funding, but with a little help from Tallahassee in the 2020-21 budget, it says it could provide even more care to those who desperately need it.
“If we hadn’t lost the state funds last year, a significant portion of those dollars would have been used to invest in behavioral health services in the Panhandle where it is sorely needed. This community needs so much more access to behavioral health services as quickly as possible, and if we had those funds we lost, we would be farther along in this process of hiring the clinical specialists we need to help the community,” said Tom VanOsdol, President and CEO of Ascension Florida.