When working with the mentally ill, good intentions are pointless without resources.

And, frankly, Kern County has had precious few resources that really help.

But a little known federally funded program that's been around more than two years seems to be filling a sorely needed mental health gap for indigent adults.

"It's a godsend," was how Kim Albers described the Low Income Health Program (LIHP) run by KMC.

Albers, head of Garden Pathways, a faith based mentoring program, is also a founder of Flood Bakersfield, a similarly faith-based triage organization that helps the down-and-out with everything from a bag of groceries to getting people into housing.

Flood sees nearly 3,000 people a year, Albers said. More than 50 percent of those suffer some form of mental illness. That figure jumps to 80 percent if you include substance abuse.

So, getting clients connected to mental health services is key.

"Often, it's the mental health condition that keeps them from getting treatment," she said. "So, when they can get stabilized mentally they finally get the physical care they need.

"This has been a big deal for us."

It's a big deal for taxpayers as well because it keeps people out of emergency rooms, cutting overall healthcare costs, according to Paul Hensler, CEO of KMC.

He said LIHP patients have had 60 percent fewer ER visits compared to non-enrollees and 65 percent fewer patient days. Costs have dropped from $7,200 per person per year for non enrollees to $3,500 for those enrolled in LIHP.

LIHP is basically a managed care system that gives people a primary care doctor and access to some specialty services, most notably mental health and substance abuse services.

It is the precursor to the full blown Medi-Cal expansion coming next January under the federal Affordable Care Act and is intended as a bridge for people who aren't currently Medi-Cal eligible and have no other form of insurance.

A lot of Kern County adults fit that profile. Data from UCLA suggest there are 63,000 Kern residents who are eligible for LIHP, Hensler said.

So far, however, only about 8,000 people have signed up.

"We had hoped to have 10,000 signed up by now," Hensler said.

KMC workers have tried to get the word out through press conferences, church visits, even taking out ads in movie theaters, but this is a hard population to reach.

"It's interesting trying to give away health care," he said. "It's an effort."

That could change if more outreach groups, like Flood, can get their clients enrolled.

"It's not a Cadillac plan by any means," Albers said of LIHP. " But it's very comprehensive including medication, prothetics."

The big breakthrough has been the mental health services, including psychiatric visits, medication, classes and substance abuse treatment.

She recalled one client who couldn't qualify through the regular system. He got on with LIHP and is off the streets after more than 10 years.

"It's really been life changing for people."

Hensler said referrals for psychiatric care through LIHP have been increasing slowly but surely every month.

Kern County Mental Health Director Jim Waterman said his department has been seeing quite a few LIHP clients.

"It's a good idea and has jump started services," he said.

But it's an "anemic" benefit, he said, with only 12 psychiatric sessions allowed. So his staff has had to "eat it" on costs by offering classes and other for clients without any reimbursement.

He is looking forward to the Medi-Cal expansion next year which will come with full federal coverage for far more services.

While I was excited about how LIHP could help increase mental health services for those in need, I was reminded by others in the mental health profession that this is just one very small arrow in the quiver serving a tiny fraction of a much larger population.

OK, true, but any increase is better than nothing.

"Even if these services are limited to people who will engage in treatment, it's huge," agreed Fawn Dessy, whose adult daughter is mentally ill. Dessy helped form the Kern County Mental Health Collaborative, an informal group, mostly parents of mentally ill adult children, that meets monthly to share information.

Dessy hadn't heard about the mental health component of LIHP and was very enthusiastic to learn more.

"It's a resource," she said excitedly.

Yes, a badly needed one.

Opinions expressed in this column are those of Lois Henry, not The Bakersfield Californian. Her column appears Wednesdays and Sundays. Comment at http://www.bakersfield.com, call her at 395-7373 or e-mail lhenry@bakersfield.com