Louisiana isn’t providing children on Medicaid with adequate mental health services, according to a lawsuit filed Thursday by the Southern Poverty Law Center on behalf of five children representing 47,500 children in the state who need services.
The suit, filed in U.S. District Court in Baton Rouge, argues that the state has violated federal laws by failing to offer children intensive mental health services, instead relying on psychiatric institutions and the juvenile justice system to stabilize children in crisis.
States that accept federal funds from Medicaid must provide children with early screening for mental health problems so that they can be diagnosed and treated as quickly as possible, according to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid.
That program includes mobile crisis teams and intensive outpatient services, known as wraparound services, that allow children to be treated in their own community and home, federal guidelines show.
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In Louisiana, children on Medicaid have few options when they experience a mental health crisis, according to the lawsuit. Children should have access to professionals trained in crisis prevention to de-escalate a situation and prevent parents from seeking law enforcement as a last resort. In many rural areas, there are no such centers or programs, or they have long waiting lists.
“The … option they have is to call 911, which can result in getting juvenile justice involved,” said Victor Jones, senior supervising attorney for the SPLC. “The other option is to have the child institutionalized.”
Sometimes, that means a child as young as 6 is put into an ambulance and driven to a hospital hundreds of miles from their home, he said.
The lawsuit is the latest filed by the SPLC, a civil rights watchdog group, against the Louisiana Department of Health for allegedly not meeting requirements outlined in the Medicaid Act and other federal laws. The group filed it in partnership with the National Health Law Program, the National Center for Law and Economic Justice, the Advocacy Center of Louisiana and O’Melveny & Myers LLP.
In 2010, the SPLC sued Mississippi on behalf of children on Medicaid on similar grounds, arguing that the state discriminated against children with mental illness by separating them from their families for treatment and failed to provide federally mandated services. That case has dragged on for almost a decade.