While behavioral and physical health have generally been separate entities in the United States, new rules under the Affordable Care Act are bringing them together—both to reduce costs and to integrate care in millions of people who face behavioral and physical health issues.
Experts at last week’s Healthy Communities Initiative forum, convened by the National Association of Counties (NACo), and this week’s AcademyHealth National Policy Conference, meeting in Washington D.C., presented strategies for combining the two. Some pilot projects are beginning. The pace is picking up largely because many people now covered under the states that have created Medicaid expansion have a range of behavioral and physical health needs. They will benefit from integration because the two are often connected—for example, diabetes has been linked to depression—and because connecting the two can reduce health care costs and reduce the number of provider visits a patient has to make.
“Behavioral health is a driving force in why people don’t get where they want to be,” said Donna Skoda, Assistant Health Commissioner of Summit County, Ohio, who spoke at the NACo forum.
Several public health officers at the forum presented ideas of what works in their communities, including:
- Hiring nurses to be care providers to assess both behavioral and physical health needs
- Retraining behavioral health specialists, including psychiatrists, to use blood pressure cuffs and other medical equipment
- Integrating patient files with information on mental and physical health baselines and changes
- Opting, when possible, to deliver care in physical health offices rather than counseling offices, since physical practitioner clinics already have devices needed such as scales
Presenters at the AcademyHealth policy conference stressed cost savings. For example, Washington state will participate in a federal demonstration project for beneficiaries dually eligible for Medicare and Medicaid. Under the demonstration, the health plans will be responsible for a full range of services—including mental health; chemical dependency; long-term services and supports; and medical care—under a single capped rate.
“Integrated care needs to be the rule, not the exception,” said Charlene Le Fauve, a deputy director of the National Institute of Mental Health.
Le Fauve said new technologies can be an important factor in delivering care including mobile devices and internet tools, which can be used at provider offices, clinics, and in homes if communities provide those services.
Other ideas being funded include training community workers for brief interventions which may be able to keep many people with mental illness out of both the emergency room and the hospital. Phone intervention is also being studied, said Le Fauve.