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

Healthcare Integration Partnerships: Understanding Specialty Behavioral Health

The integration of behavioral health and primary care services allows for a holistic approach for the treatment of people with serious behavioral health disorders. As the disparate healthcare providers join together to provide treatment, the obvious differences between them must be addressed for success.

There are misconceptions that behavioral health providers want to address with their primary care partners for maximizing their integration efforts.

Understanding the Community Behavioral Health Core Mission

Community Behavioral Health Centers (CBHCs) are specialty behavioral healthcare providers and serve a vital role in the healthcare industry.  The community behavioral health system provides treatment for individuals who have serious mental illnesses, substance use disorders, co-occurring SMI/SUD, and children and adolescents with serious emotional disturbances. These organizations are not a repository for the worried well. Their role is to address complex disorders that are generally beyond the scope of practice of primary care providers. In addition to providing psychiatric oversight, they also possess an expertise in rehabilitation and recovery that is not available in primary care. These services include psychosocial rehabilitation, peer support, case management, supported employment, and supportive housing. Treatment is provided through a team approach that begins with a thorough biopsychosocial assessment to identify life stressors, level of functioning, and clinical symptomology. Services are directed by the psychiatrist or psychiatric-extender who serves as prescriber.  Counseling, rehabilitation, recovery, and support services are carried out by other members of the team.  CBHCs can work collaboratively with CHCs to effectively meet the whole health needs of people with behavioral health concerns.

Differing Pace and Workflow 

The CBHC pace is very unlike that of the primary care clinic. Long waits for appointments are the norm rather than the exception. CBHC office visits with the prescriber frequently exceed the standard 15 minute allotment in the CHC. This is due to the complexity of symptoms of many of the individuals served. While some CBHCs are beginning to use an open access approach, most are still using the standard scheduled appointment model that may result in a several week wait to see a prescriber. This has been a barrier to working collaboratively in the past. CHCs have opted to avoid making referrals because of the excessive wait and lack of status updates.

A side note: behavioral health can assist with the flow in the primary care setting. The flow of busy primary care clinics can be side-railed by patients with behavioral health disorders in addition to their other health concerns. Adding a behavioral health specialist to the team to address the behavioral health issues improves the flow, patient satisfaction, and clinical outcomes.

Lack of Regulation Uniformity

Reimbursement for CBHC services varies greatly from primary care. Block grants for mental health and substance use disorder treatment are regulated at the state level, resulting in a lack of consistency. Each state has created its own system for determining how the funds are allocated and how outcomes are measured. The process of billing for and receiving reimbursement for services is tedious. Some states have opted for capitation; others have a fee for service system. Other states have outsourced this to managed care companies.  Historically private insurance has not provided equitable coverage for behavioral health disorders, creating a gap between coverage for behavioral health and physical health conditions. A mental health law, the Paul Wellstone and Pete Domenici Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act, ensures that individuals with mental health and substance use disorders receive healthcare services equal to those for physical health conditions without larger co-pays.

Unique Needs of Specialty Care

The National Association of State Mental Health Program Directors (NASMHPD) 2006, Morbidity and Mortality for People with Serious Mental Illness, reports that people with serious mental illness are dying on average 25 years earlier than the general population. In addition, according to Substance Use Disorders and the Person-Centered Healthcare Home a 2010 report by Barbara Mauer, people with co-occurring mental illness and substance use disorders were at greatest risk with their average age of death 45 years of age. The people we serve are dying prematurely in part due to poor quality of medical care. This population fails to get adequate healthcare for a variety of reasons. Integrating primary care services in the behavioral health setting is a viable solution for improving health outcomes.

  • Specialty behavioral health services for individuals who have a serious mental illness and one or more comorbid health condition requires coordinated care. Ideally the care is delivered via the behavioral health home. The team is led by the psychiatrist working closely with the entire treatment team, including the primary care provider.
  • Stigma is a barrier to accessing services for people with behavioral health disorders. Historically preconceived notions associated with behavioral health disorders have limited effective access to healthcare by many individuals.
  • Due to the pervasive lack of support systems for people with serious behavioral health conditions, the role of case manager is extremely important for supporting identified functional needs. Case managers frequently assist clients with preparing for visits with their primary care provider and often accompany them as well to ensure coordinated care.

Solution for Information Sharing

Historically CBHCs have not freely communicated with primary care about their shared patients. This originated because of a common misperception that has persisted in behavioral health that sharing mental health and substance use information with primary care providers is prohibited without going through an elaborate process. CBHCs realize that this has created a barrier for collaboration and are actively working at developing a solution; addressing HIPAA/confidentiality and 42 CFR Part 2 to develop a process for effectively sharing information.

It is through increased understanding of the differences between the healthcare partners that true success will occur, evidenced by improved health outcomes.


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