Councilwoman Lee talks state’s mental health crisis

Councilmember Linda Lee
Councilwoman Linda Lee (Courtesy of campaign)

New York City Councilwoman Linda Lee on June 23 discussed the mental health crisis occurring in the city with New York State Attorney General Letitia James. As the chair of the Committee on Mental Health, Disabilities and Addictions, Lee was one of several panelists of community activists, health professionals and elected officials who testified on the matter.

Among the topics brought up by Lee were reversing a decadeslong disinvestment in psychiatric bed supply, coordinating care between healthcare providers at all levels of government, addressing sub-par insurance reimbursement and addressing the needs of the workforce.

“We’re in the midst of a mental health crisis and to be very clear this was always an issue before the pandemic,” Lee said. “Years of disinvesting into the system has only exacerbated what we were seeing in the pandemic. Multiple studies have shown increases of two to three times the reported pre-pandemic levels of depression, anxiety and other mental health-related illnesses. As high as these numbers may seem, these studies often discount non-English speaking communities and folks who are not reached through these surveys. Given the breadth and severity of this problem, we must work to address the various insufficiency we have observed in our mental healthcare system.”

In addressing bed supply disinvestment, Lee emphasized the need for increasing the number of beds at psychiatric facilities to help improve the continuum of care for patients. According to Lee, an increase in the number of beds would allow for increased service to those in need.

Lee highlighted the importance of having enhanced coordination between local, state, federal, private and nonprofit providers to ensure patients do not fall between the cracks. She called for better coordination between these agencies to promote quality resources and expand service.

Low rates of insurance reimbursement when it comes to Medicaid have not helped ease the problem. According to Lee, a study was performed that showed New York Medicaid paid doctors only 44% of rates. Medicaid reimbursement for mental healthcare is usually below the minimum threshold necessary for adequate treatment and employee insurance has not updated its rates since its original 1983 setting.

According to Lee, a lot of providers face a 40% to 50% turnover along with 30% vacancies due to a low number of qualified staff graduating to the field and historic attrition due to low pay, stressful work and relatively better conditions in the private sector. She proposed investing funding into the social services sector to provide cost of living adjustments (COLAs) and ensure professionals are able to be paid and retained.

Prior to be elected to represent the 23rd Council District last November, Lee was the president and CEO of Korean Community Services (KCS) of Metropolitan New York Inc. It was the city’s first community-based social service organization focused on the Korean community. Its mission is to act as a bridge for Korean immigrants and the wider Asian community to fully integrate into society and overcome any economic, health and social barriers to become independent and thriving members of the community. Its culturally competent programs in the areas of aging, education, immigration, workforce development, public and mental health serve around 1,300 members on a daily basis.

During the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, KCS assisted members in receiving unemployment benefits, PPP loans, COVID tests and vaccinations. KCS was named a Champion of Change by the Obama administration in 2014 for its work around the Affordable Care Act. Lee also spearheaded the creation of the only state-licensed Article 31 mental health clinic serving the Korean-American community operating in New York.

In addition to acting as the chair of the Committee on Mental Health, Addictions and Disabilities, Lee is also co-chair of the Queens Delegation and the vice chair of the Black, Latino and Asian Caucus. She was also the first Korean American ever elected to the City Council and the first woman and person of color to hold the seat. 

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