Gov. Ralph Northam

Kevin Hines experienced his first psychotic break while acting in a high school production of “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying.”

He looked out at the 1,200-person audience and suddenly felt that they were all there to kill him.

Years later, at the age of 19, Hines succumbed to the voices in his head and threw himself off the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco. Of the nearly 2,000 people who have made the same jump, he is one of only 36 to have survived it.

Hines told his story to a room full of Virginia health care professionals and experts as the keynote speaker at the first Virginia Behavioral Health Summit organized by the Virginia Hospital and Healthcare Association. The conference, which was held to discuss practice and policy for preventing and treating mental health and substance abuse disorders, was held in Richmond on Thursday.

Hines’ humor-laced narrative of hope set an uplifting tone for the state’s first gathering of its kind to focus on an aspect of health care that has been deemed a public health crisis by Gov. Ralph Northam.

“Behavioral health is not easy and it’s going to take all of us working together to move forward,” said Northam, speaking during the conference’s opening remarks. “We still have a lack of resources and a lack of individuals that are prepared to take care of these Virginians. ... Our state hospitals right now are bursting at the seams.”

Northam explained that he believes the state needs to pay social workers and psychologists more to recruit talented professionals; that behavioral health services need to be accessible to more Virginians, especially those with limited resources; and that the cost of health care should be lowered by focusing more resources on preventive services.

The governor also addressed the opioid crisis that resulted in more than 1,200 deaths in 2017, killing more people than car accidents and guns.

“The largest challenge, by far, is the opioid crisis,” said Northam, who is a physician. He has traveled around Virginia, speaking to medical students about how health care providers can be more aware of and innovative in treating substance abuse disorders.

Virginia Secretary of Health and Human Resources Daniel Carey and Department of Medical Assistance Services Director Jennifer Lee spoke to the gathering about the rollout of Medicaid expansion, which will insure an estimated 400,000 additional low-income Virginians.

Carey said the expansion of Medicaid will create more stable funding for preventive care, taking some pressure off acute care resources.

Lee emphasized the inclusion of behavioral health funding in the Medicaid expansion process, including the decision to reimburse for addiction therapy.

Hughes Melton, chief deputy commissioner for public health and preparedness, also spoke, addressing the capacity issues that many public hospitals are facing as a result of state legislation that requires them to hold a mental health patient that comes in until a bed can be found at an appropriate facility.

“We don’t want people with behavioral health [issues] to be in an emergency department for an extended period,” Melton said.

He added that new policies aimed at addressing these issues will be developed over the next few months.

“We will see improvements,” Melton said.

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Twitter: @bridgetbalch

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