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Plumas County turns to telehealth for Dixie Fire survivors despite ‘stone age’ internet

A sign marking the Plumas County line.
Jamie Jiang
A sign marking the Plumas County line.

The Plumas County Board of Supervisors voted in July to bring telehealth psychiatry to Plumas County.

Nearly $500,000 will be spent on a healthcare company to see patients for mental health issues through video calls.

“You might as well put the money in a pile and burn it. It'd be a lot easier."
- Ken Donnell, community organizer for Dixie Fire survivors and mental health advocate

Advocates say it will help address growing mental health issues in the county, especially in the aftermath of the pandemic and the massive 2021 Dixie Fire.

Ken Donnell, a community organizer for Dixie Fire survivors and a mental health advocate, said the telehealth contract is a waste of money.

“You might as well put the money in a pile and burn it," Donnell said. "It'd be a lot easier."

Donnell feels psychiatrists need to deeply understand the local culture and the challenges of disaster recovery. He said someone who doesn't live in Greenville would be hard-pressed to address mental health issues through a screen.

Donnell also said that a lack of internet in some areas might be detrimental to the service provided with telehealth.

"Our internet services is in the stone ages here," he said. "So, how are we going to get telehealth services if we don't have good internet?"

Debra Lucero, a spokesperson for Plumas County, said she is aware of these issues. But, she said, the county is one of many jurisdictions impacted by a nationwide behavioral health staff shortage.

According to a report published this May by the Commonwealth Fund, the effects of this shortage is more pronounced in rural regions like Plumas County.

As a result, the county is struggling to recruit behavioral health staff.

“It goes back to psychiatrists and the number of psychiatrists needed. We simply aren't there. And so telehealth is the next best thing,” Lucero said.

Lucero added that survivors who don’t have internet at home could log in to their telehealth appointments at the county’s behavioral health clinics.

Currently, those clinics are in Quincy, Chester, and Portola. Lucero said the county is working on bringing a clinic to Greenville.

Suicide, addiction, access to preventative care top challenges

The board’s vote to bring telehealth psychiatry to the county came as a new report was released on public health issues the county must address in the next five years.
The Community Health Improvement Plan report showed that suicide, addiction, and access to preventive care were the top three challenges facing county residents.

“When you look at the root causes of them, that's the Dixie Fire and the other fires we've experienced ... and also the effects of COVID.”
- Dana Krinsky, Director of the Plumas County Public Health Agency

Dana Krinsky, the acting director of the Plumas County Public Health Agency, said the Community Health Improvement Plan (CHIP) will guide what issues the county should focus on.

“When you look at the root causes of them,” Krinsky said, “that's the Dixie Fire and the other fires we've experienced that have wiped out our communities and our structures and our homes and families, systems, and also the effects of COVID.”

The last Community Health Improvement Plan was published in 2016, before the pandemic and the fire.

The board also voted to pay a Redding-based addiction recovery center $50,000 to provide counseling and community support in the county.

Krinsky said the county's telehealth and substance abuse contracts were negotiated before the report came out.

However, she said, the plan will guide the county to continue prioritizing mental health and substance abuse problems.

"It's a long-term roadmap or a systematic effort that addresses health

problems in our communities," Krinsky said. "So this CHIP is going to run from 2023 to 2028, which is the five-year plan."

Other programs that aim to address addiction and mental health were discussed at the most recent meeting of the Plumas County Board of Supervisors on Aug. 1, which is available for the public to watch.

Jamie was NSPR’s wildfire reporter and Report For America corps member. She covered all things fire, but her main focus was wildfire recovery in the North State. Before NSPR, Jamie was at UCLA, where she dabbled in college radio and briefly worked as a podcast editor at the Daily Bruin.