- Associated Press - Saturday, May 10, 2014

DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) - Thousands of central Iowans who receive mental health treatment from the Mercy health system will soon have to seek care elsewhere after hospital officials announced plans to discontinue many outpatient mental health care services.

Mercy leaders announced the plan, which will affect about 8,000 adult patients, on Friday, The Des Moines Register reported (http://dmreg.co/1l2Sxrh ). The change is set to take effect Aug. 29.

Sharon Phillips, chief operating officer of Mercy Clinics, partly blames the recent departure of three of the system’s five psychiatrists. One went into private practice, another retired and the third has gone to work for the state prison system.

Mercy is unable to quickly replace those doctors, Phillips said, and it didn’t want to water down the quality of services to patients.

“For their safety, we needed to make sure we could get them connected to resources,” she said.

Mercy leaders in April touted the opening of a $12 million inpatient psychiatric wing at the system’s downtown Des Moines medical center. Phillips said officials didn’t realize then that they would have to curtail their outpatient services - the way most patients receive treatment.

Mercy is one of two large, nonprofit hospital and clinic systems in the Des Moines area. The other, UnityPoint Health, said Friday it plans to continue providing outpatient mental health services. So do several independent mental health agencies, the Veterans Affairs Medical Center and Polk County’s public hospital, Broadlawns Medical Center, the Register reported.

Mercy administrators promised to help affected patients find other options, but area mental health professionals and agencies expressed shock at the decision.

“What a mess,” said Nancy Hale, executive director of the Iowa chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness. “Eight thousand people? Where are they going to go?”

Bruce Buchanan, clinic director of the Compass Clinical Associates mental health agency in Urbandale, said the area already faces a critical shortage of outpatient mental health services. New patients who want to see a central Iowa psychiatrist already typically wait 10 to 12 weeks for an appointment, he said.

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Information from: The Des Moines Register, http://www.desmoinesregister.com