How Butler County is changing to help those most vulnerable in coronavirus shutdown

Care for Butler County’s most vulnerable citizens during the coronavirus pandemic is challenging, but officials and business operators say they are making changes to reach as many as possible.

Health Commissioner Jenny Bailer has asked one of her staff members to coordinate agencies that help the elderly, homeless, those who suffer from mental illness and addiction and the developmentally disabled.

Scott Rasmus, executive director of the Mental Health and Addiction Recovery Services board, said his staff is closely monitoring suicide prevention services, the Heroin Hopeline and other services.

People are afraid to leave their homes for counseling services, which has pushed mental health and addiction providers into a financial crisis, he said. MHARS board funding only represents about 8 percent of these providers’ revenue, and 60 to 80 percent is billed to Medicaid. If clients aren’t showing up, insurance and Medicaid can’t be billed, yet they still have staff to pay.

Phone counseling has become the new normal, but that has its own issues, according to Rasmus.

“Now they’re transitioning from face-to-face sessions to telephone or telehealth sessions, and there are challenges with that…,” Rasmus said. “If you do a therapy session or case management it could be 50 minutes or an hour or whatever it is, to support clients. There’s concerns about minutes and do these clients have enough minutes to support their mental health sessions.”

RELATED: Butler County health leader details coronavirus case data, needs in coming weeks

Billing for those services also has challenges, but Rasmus said he was told by the county auditor’s office he was unable to release payments from his board in advance.

Scott Gehring, CEO of Sojourner Recovery Services, said his business is trying solutions like installing a new “telemedicine” system so patients can see their doctor remotely and a “pretty high tech disinfectant system” for those who come to the facilities.

“We are open for business, I want people to know behavioral health is essential lifesaving care,” Gehring told the Journal-News. “These are troubled times for everyone, especially people that have an underlying condition. Now more than ever people should be coming to get help.”

The elderly are another vulnerable population. Half of the 17 confirmed coronavirus cases are people 50-plus, and five are older than 65.

Bailer has been briefing the county commissioners weekly on the status of the pandemic. Last week Commissioner Don Dixon asked her to find a way to reach seniors who aren’t already receiving meals and other services and get them help running errands while they are sheltered in place. Commissioner T.C. Rogers wanted a way to connect volunteers with those in need.

Bailer and Suzanne Burke, president and CEO for the Council on Aging of Southwestern Ohio, within days established hotlines for seniors who need help and another to cull volunteers. Burke said the number of seniors now receiving help who did not use COA services previously doubled from about 30 to 60 in a day. They are also collecting volunteers to help with food delivery or grocery shopping.

• Seniors who need help with anything at all can call: 513-721-1025

• Volunteers who are able to offer assistance can call: 513-623-3891 or email Jacqueline Hutsell

Burke told the Journal-News officials started planning for the possible spread of the pandemic earlier this year by reaching out to food vendors early so 14-day “shelf-stable” food boxes could be assembled in case of a food supply emergency.

“We wanted to be ahead of the game on this so that if there was a disruption in the supply chain, or drivers became ill, or some of these things that are reasonable to expect, that clients would have a fall back plan and already have meals in their home that they could resort to,” Burke said. “Those are rolling out as we speak.”

Now clients who were already receiving Meals on Wheels, clients who weren’t on the meal plan but using other senior services and the new demographic are receiving meals.

Rogers said he is glad to hear this population is so well served and so quickly.

“To be able to put that together is great,” Rogers said. “Because it is recognized that we don’t want to leave anybody behind. I think there’s elements to prove we’re kind of ahead of the game on that that other governments could replicate.”

Lisa Guliano, superintendent for the county board of Developmental Disabilities said their clients are susceptible to complications if they contract the coronavirus because of underlying medical conditions. There are also concerns for their caregivers.

“They depend on family members or direct support professionals to assist with activities of daily living thus we are very concerned about the health of the support persons in their lives,” she said. “We are working to develop emergency support plans so services are in place if people become ill.”

The homeless are another sector officials worry about. Mindy Muller, with the Butler County Housing and Homeless Coalition, said they have issued guidelines that are continually updated, to all coalition members to try to lessen community spread. Those include training shelter staff to recognize the virus; screening everyone daily for symptoms; stringent cleaning protocols and other precautions.

The key now though to keep people out of shelters.

“Our priorities right now, it is a system-wide priority, is to ensure we are decreasing the census in the congregate shelters so that we can comply with social distancing recommendations,” Muller said. “The second is to ensure that new families and individuals that are at risk for homelessness are not entering the system, so really doing some creative diversion as people can stay with family we’re encouraging them to do that, as they have options to stay with friends for a little while, we’re encouraging them to do that.”

Coronavirus resources

  • Ohio Department of Health hotline: 1-833-4-ASK-ODH (staffed from 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. each day)
  • ODH updates:
  • Ohio Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services helpline: 1-877-275-6364
  • National Alliance on Mental Illness Butler County hotline: 1-844-4CRISIS
  • Ohio crisis text line: Text keyword "4HOPE" to 741 741
  • Butler County hotline for seniors who need help: 513-721-1025
  • Butler County hotline for those who want to help seniors: 513-623-3891
  • Complete Journal-News coverage:

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