A sign marking a Sweetser campus.

Maine mental health provider Sweetser has announced it is ending its clinic-based therapy program, which will affect 450 children and adults.

The nonprofit said it made the decision because reimbursement rates from both the state and from private insurers are not sufficient to support the service. And while Sweetser said it will work to find alternative services for the hundreds affected, mental health advocates said that will come as a challenge.

Sweetser’s clinic-based therapy, which it offers at five locations from York to Lewiston, will end by mid-December. Other services at those locations will continue, as will therapy services in the community, including those offered at public schools and primary care offices. Sweetser declined an interview request, but in a letter sent to community partners, Vice President of Programs Jim Martin said the 450 people who currently receive clinic-based therapy will need to transition to services elsewhere.

The announcement concerns Jenna Mehnert, CEO of the National Alliance on Mental Illness in Maine.

“This is 450 individuals who were brave enough to ask for help, found a clinician, clearly found a connection to that clinician if they continued to go, who now don’t have services,” Mehnert said. “Those services are not easily replaced in the current landscape of Maine’s mental health care system.”

Mehnert said there is already a shortage of mental health providers throughout the state. The executive director of the Consumer Council System of Maine, Simonne Maline, said Sweetser’s announcement is a bellwether of what has been happening in the community mental health system for years.

“I think if there is not a big warning bell going off right now for the Department and the community, there definitely should be,” Maline said.

Maine’s Department of Health and Human Services Commissioner Jeanne Lambrew said in a written statement that rebuilding the state’s mental health system is a top priority for Gov. Janet Mills’ administration, and that community-based services are central to the state’s strategy.

In an Op-Ed this fall, the commissioner said that DHHS is seeking federal funds to expand services. A preliminary plan on the department’s website also sets a goal to address the shortage in the behavioral health workforce.

Sweetser said its decision is due to both public and private reimbursement rates that are too low to support the clinic-based model.

Democratic state Sen. Cathy Breen, who is co-chair of a recently-formed mental health working group, said the group will examine rates and make recommendations in a forthcoming report.

“We really need a system-wide review so that folks in Maine are getting the services they need with the proper level of care in the community,” Breen said.

Simonne Maline of the Consumers Council System agrees that reimbursement rates need a boost, but she says the problem goes a bit deeper.

“I don’t think you can make really good decisions unless you’re talking to each other and collaborating to find out what are the holes, where do we need to beef up services. You can’t do that until you start talking to each other,” Maline said. “And that’s one thing I see still continuing to be a challenge in this current administration.”

Maline says the working group is a good start toward strengthening Maine’s mental health system. But she says the state should continually solicit feedback from both providers and consumers to achieve the best results.

This article appears through a media partnership with Maine Public.