behavioral health integration · behavioral health primary care integration · collaborative care · healthcare integration · primary care behavioral health integration

The Greatest Challenges for Integrating Behavioral Health and Primary Care Services

In a recent poll conducted via the LinkedIn group, Behavioral Health Integration, this question was posted*:

What is the greatest challenge for integrating behavioral health and primary care services? 


Sustainability — finance and billing           50%

Partnership issues                                          23%

Workforce issues                                             11%

HIT issues                                                          3%

Operations/workflow issues                        11%

The question produced a number of excellent comments that are listed below. Obviously there are differing opinions about the greatest challenge for integration. The most important factor is that the healthcare community is actively thinking about this very important topic! There is no easy solution. However, as long as we continue to move forward we will establish the path to success. It’s a challenge that is worthy of our efforts. We WILL make a difference.

What do YOU think is the greatest challenge for integrating behavioral health and primary care services? Please send your comments to or visit Behavioral Health Integration

Peggy H:  Hmmmm. And possibly beneath it all is the issue that both systems are needing to care for an overwhelming number of people, with increasingly complex needs, in the first place. I have only recently joined, but am eager to learn more about how policy, the priorities it sets and the direction it gives to financing, is shaping critical features of integration efforts.

Joseph B:   In my mind, until the silo mentality for benefit and payment is integrated, there can not be true clinical integration. In settings where integrated payment has been settled (VA, Kaiser, ACOs), all other issues solve themselves.

I believe that carved-in, risk sharing financial models are the solution to integration

Bob F:  I think Dr. B is directly on target. Risk sharing models – capitated systems, shared savings models – can encourage better integration between modalities. Fee for service and carve outs fail to capture the true essence of integration – the vital “almost billable” services like warm handoffs, hallway consults, follow up phone calls, and the treatment team meeting; not to mention the varied allowable services among the states pertaining to same-day billing, discipline/credential requirements, etc. Trying to pound the traditional mental health square peg (with all of its burdensome documentation requirements) into the primary care round hole is not the answer – and just pounding harder with a bigger hammer is definitely not the answer.

Lena Z:  I work for a pediatric health care system in Texas and we have only been able to deliver this type of service under grant funding…which was recently stripped away prematurely by the state of TX.

Bob F:  It’s frustrating, isn’t it Lena? What we’ve found in TN is that it’s all about what you negotiate in your contract; the payers have latitude to “turn on” certain codes, allow for different funding arrangements/systems – but the provider has to be able to have the data and show the outcomes. The payer can also do some cost comparisons of your services versus your neighboring providers/competitors – that is the key. If you can get them to share their data in comparison with yours and can show those savings and improved outcomes – you have better leverage. We also learned that we were never going to be in a position to negotiate until we had a big enough member panel. It’s a battle well worth fighting – and one that is never truly won. Or lost.

Cheryl H:  Each of the issues can and often does create barriers for behavioral health and primary care integration. Sustainability is the area in which most providers tend to focus for obvious reasons: No margin no mission. However, too often concern over sustainability becomes the primary focus, diverting attention from the other issues causing them to be neglected:

  • Partnership issues have brought about the demise of many promising partnerships. For long-term success, behavioral health and primary care partners must address establishing the mission for the partnership; identify a common language; maintaining pacing, flexibility, and capacity; develop shared solutions; determine expectations; delegate trust; create empowerment; and measure outcomes.
  • Workforce issues can create significant barriers to successful integration. Service provision in the integrated environment varies greatly from services provided in traditional behavioral health and primary care organizations. Training programs for current and future workforce is necessary for long-term success.
  • Health information technology issues create significant challenges for healthcare integration. Challenges created when partners have incompatible electronic records and other issues with record sharing inhibit successful integration.
  • Operational issues such as workflow can impact productivity, creating further challenges to sustainability.

With commitment among all stakeholders, successful integration of behavioral health and primary care can be accomplished. The resulting improvement of health outcomes for people with behavioral health disorders makes it worth all the effort.

Cindy M: As I think about this and read all your comments, I’m now thinking that the biggest challenge depends a lot on the people who are facing that challenge. I voted “workforce” because I’ve thusfar been able to find ways to deal with the silos in the back office so that they are transparent — or CAN be, at least — to the clients and possibly even the service delivery staff.

The biggest problems I’ve had are in teaching my fiscal dept. staff to think “integration” on the front line while complying with the silo mandates in the back office. Then there are the issues with some — not all, by any means — clinical and service staff who either are flummoxed a bit by the concepts and practices they have to integrate OR are stuck in “we don’t do that” gear.

The finance structure and silos are what I lose my religion over, but (apart from the unlucky fiscal staff) don’t need to interfere with anyone else. In dealing with THAT, I still find the main determinant to success or frustration being the persons I have to deal with at the governmental offices with whom we’re contracting. Some are very creative in helping create ways to make it work and others just AREN’T. Those ones do not help me find ways to create an “integration effect” without having an actual integration on the finance side. Which, again, is a work force issue.

Long story short: in my experience, integration has been as good as the people in charge of making it happen.

Stephen W: Great question. From an information system perspective, the greatest challenge is finding a software vendor that handles both BH and PC effectively. CCHIT has certification standards that address both BH and Ambulatory Care. These standards are more stringent than MU certification. I would start there and only look at those vendors that are certified in both.

Joseph P:  I see a legacy of “carving out” behavioral health from medical benefits as segregating the two. Now that the value of treating diseases with high levels of psychological cormobidity is well established there will be a need to embed behavioral health with primary care much in the manner demonstrated by bariatric and transplant programs. Behavioral health specialists will need to provide brief cogent consults to PCPs and brief strategic interventions to patients focusing on patient education, compliance and stress/pain management in addition to more traditional psychological care. Insurance reimbursement can target shared risk/rewards for health care homes that provide this multidisciplinary approach.

Bill H:  I don’t see it as a greatest single challenge as much as a multitude of challenges that require coordination, planning and leadership. I generally recommend starting small and building on successes. Once you effectively implement integration in one area, you will create a demand for similar services in other areas. Finding the right location to pilot a program that has a clinical need and a physician champion provides a great place to start an integration program. Would be happy to discuss integration in more detail.

I am currently working on developing a behavioral health model for accountable care organizations. Thoughts on that topic??

Karen M: The largest challenge I had dealing with both was a very direct problem but I do not think their is a simple and straightforward way to handle it. I found when working with Behavioral Health and also co-morbid medical cases I had a lack of communication between providers. This communication was the single item that told me whether a case would be successful or not. The willingness of providers to communicate is paramount to success and I know that isa complicated issue due to the fact physicians
and other professionals do not get paid for consultation but that leads me to believe some changes need to be made.

Joseph P: I am currently director of a multi-facility, multi-state program that offers integrated outpatient medical and behavioral health care to members of a Medicare Advantage program. We provide urgent ED level and ongoing complex care in conjunction with hospitalist service. This allows members a continuum of care that augments that provided by their PCP. PCPs have their HEDIS metrics improved (with higher level of reimbursement), patients receive excellent care that reduces inappropriate ED and hospital admissions and the insurance company reduces unnecessary costs. Behavioral medicine in these advanced care center focus on compliance and psychological factors that affect physical conditions. This type of program is likely to become a model of how care will be provided in the future as the carriers invest more dollars in better integrated healthcare as a wy of controlling inappropriate costs related to inappropriate higher level of care

Jim H:  Possibly not the greatest challenge, but still a significant one is to provide an environment that is safe for patients who may have self-harm or suicidal tendencies. According to studies by the American Psychiatric Association we were averaging 1,500 inpatient suicides per year in 2003 and that number has increased to 1,800 by 2008. That averages just under 5 inpatient suicides per day. The typical med/surg hospital unit provides many opportunities for suicide and access to items that may be used by patients to harm themselves or others.

The American Society for Healthcare Engineering (ASHE) published a monograph last year that addresses this issue titled “Converting Medical/Surgical Units for Safe Use by Psychiatric Patients”. This is available for purchase on their website at

Also the National Association of Psychiatric Health Systems (NAPHS) publishes the “Design Guide for the Built Environment of Behavioral Health Facilities” that is available free of charge at either their website ( or mine ( I am the co-author of both publications and I also offer free 30 minute phone consultations on patient and staff safety in behavioral health facilities.

Jay O:  I’ve built several counseling centers and consulted for a lot of physicians. From my perspective, there are a number of issues that make it difficult, but could be overcome. Therapists in general are used to working in isolation. They typically do not communicate well with physicians and many are frankly afraid to do so. This can be overcome through training therapists how to adapt to a faster paced primary care setting.

I’ve embedded counselors in several primary care offices with some success. Patients feel less stigmatized going to a primary care office. There still needs to be strong referral patterns developed internally. Even with a therapist present, physicians still need to develop the habit of having a referral conversation with their patients and make a referral for an assessment. Alerts could be set up in EHR to remind the physician to do this when they prescribe psychotropic medications.

On the business side, a lot needs to be worked out to integrate with a practice. Medical space is often more expensive than a therapist can afford. The ROI on this space may be very low for the therapist, but high for the physician. If the space is unused, then it can be subleased at a reduced rate, otherwise it would not make financial sense for either party.

In general, therapists are not as good at creating business relationships and resolving operation issues that would need to be worked out to integrate with physician offices. These trends can be overcome with some training and coaching of the counselors.

Denise S:  My position as a Behavioral Health Specialist was created to do just that to work as a link between Behavioral Health and the Medical Case Management Teams.

Bill H:  A resource on the topic is: Understanding the Behavioral Healthcare Crisis: The Promise of Integrated Care and Diagnostic Reform. The book was edited by Cummings and O’ Donohue and published in 2011.

Scott W:  A major challenge is the same challenge that exists in integrating primary health with any specialty area. Healthcare providers are largely oriented to focusing on the problem at hand, and do not necessarily feel able or equipped to take the time to understand the relationship between the various health problems a patient may have, including behavioral health. I believe to successfully integrate a patient’s different healthcare needs, there may need to be a professional (nurse) or paraprofessional (trained technician) who can serve as a care manager. Obviously, adding this expense would need to have some criteria and parameters to be cost effective.

Anyone who has an older family member or friend who has multiple health problems and a variety of medications knows that there can often be medical and/or psychiatric complications from the interactions of those medications. To me, and perhaps using an overly simple definition and context, integration means care management.

Ally L:  The medical field has not experienced peer/family/youth/young adult involvement to the same extent that mental health has. They don’t yet understand the value or that we as peers and family members can understand the complexity of integration. We have made great strides in this area within mental health (always more work to be done) but it feels like we’re starting at square one with medical professionals in the development of statewide integration, Coordinated Care Organizations and Health Homes that is occurring here in Oregon.

The other challenge is the medical model. Mental health has operated under the medical model for many years as far as billing (Medicaid and private insurance); however, there are other elements of the medical model that do not translate well when it comes to practice. For example, the measuring of outcomes. Recovery is more easily measured when we are looking at physical illness or injury. Recovery in mental health and/or addiction is more subjective. The person in recovery determines what recovery looks like for them, not whether the rash is gone or the broken bone has healed. A mental health professional or family member’s definition of recovery for their “patient” or loved one may be very different than for the person working toward their self-defined recovery.

Cindy L:  Reimbursement? I will be graduating in a year with my Psych Nurse Practitioner finding my place will be challenging

*The question was also posted in these groups: Behavioral Healthcare Magazine Group, Mental Health Networking, The Friends of SAMHSA. Several of the comments came from these groups.


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