Affordable Care Act · behavioral health integration · health care reform · Integrated Care

Historic Parity Ruling Provided at Long Last

“We know so much more today, and yet the problems are still very much the same, with one exception: Recovery.  Twenty five years ago, we did not dream that people might someday be able actually to recover from mental illnesses.  Today it is a very real possibility.”  ~Former First Lady Rosalynn Carter

History was made today at the Carter Center in Atlanta. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius made a long-awaited announcement at the 29th Annual Rosalynn Carter Mental Health Policy SymposiumHealth insurance companies must cover mental illness and substance abuse just as they cover physical diseases. Secretary Sebelius’s speech  may be read here in its entirety.

In 2008, Congress passed the Paul Wellstone and Pete Domenici Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act, marking an important step forward in efforts to end discrimination in insurance coverage for mental health and substance use disorder treatment. While the act closed several loopholes left by the 1996 Mental Health Parity Act, it has taken five years to finalize the law. The 2008 act lacked clarity on how parity is to be achieved, particularly when treatment involves intensive care at physician offices or long-term hospital stays.

Today’s ruling provides clarification on how parity applies to residential treatments and outpatient care. It also ensures that copayments, deductibles, and limits on mental health benefits are not more restrictive or provide less coverage than those for medical and surgical benefits, including geographic or facility limitations. These have been tremendous barriers to treatment thus far and represent a significant triumph for the behavioral health community.

“This is the largest expansion of behavioral health coverage in a generation,” declared Secretary Sebelius. Addressing the need for adequate care for mental health has been a goal for more than 50 years, when President John F. Kennedy signed the Community Mental Health Center Act of 1963 into law.

At long last, treatment for behavioral health disorders is regarded as equal to other types of healthcare. This represents a significant achievement in behavioral health and should contribute to the ongoing effort to reduce the stigma. Millions fail to follow up with needed treatment because of stigma. With this final ruling and with movement toward integrated care, we will finally be able to improve access.

What will the world be like when people begin to actually receive that needed treatment?

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healthcare integration

Health Information Technology and Healthcare Integration

Health information technology (HIT) is important to healthcare providers for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is for complying with Medicare and Medicaid Electronic Health Records (EHR) Incentive Program requirements.

HIT is critical to the success of health homes and healthcare integration, allowing behavioral health and primary care providers to share information. This sharing enables healthcare providers to have access to all available healthcare information related to the individual being served. And this, of course, results in improved health outcomes. The SAMHSA-HRSA Center for Integrated Health Solutions has a wide array of HIT resources: click here for more information.

The Past

Not too many years ago, healthcare providers were handwriting or dictating their progress notes. When patients were seen outside the office, or if the notes were not yet filed in the chart, the limited amount of information available created a challenge to providing the best care. A patient who was unable to provide a thorough medical history was being treated blindly in some regards. And health implications aside, numerous medical procedures were repeated due to lack of access to the reports. Duplication of the procedures drove up healthcare costs.

In addition, the sharing of information between providers was the exception rather than the rule. Coordination of care between providers for patients referred to specialty care was not reimbursed and, as a result of limited resources, less than ideal. This brief history lesson on medical records serves to illustrate the value of electronic health records and health information technology.

Fast Forward to the Present

Though far from ideal, the healthcare industry is making great strides in health information technology, including health information exchanges (HIEs) designed to facilitate the sharing of data. Despite the rapid progress, sharing information continues to be a challenge for behavioral health and primary care organizations. These integration efforts create unique challenges, largely due to problems with sharing information between two systems. The electronic health records (EHRs) used by primary care providers are seldom compatible with EHRs used by behavioral health providers. While some partnerships have implemented means of addressing this (work arounds), such as a third system to link the two or “home grown” alternatives, there are currently no ideal options available.

These noble community providers persevere however. They are well accustomed to dealing with challenges in the quest for pursuing their mission. People with serious mental illness are dying prematurely; and has been inadvertently perpetuated by this lack of information sharing. In an attempt to be respectful and responsible with healthcare information, limitations (and misunderstandings) have impeded information sharing. The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (HIPAA), Public Law 104-191 and Title 42: Public Health Part 2—Confidentiality of Alcohol and Drug Abuse Patient Records, also known as 42-CFR Part 2, are the most frequently cited reasons for not sharing information. These federal regulations cite guidelines for confidential health information. Though intended to provide clarity, healthcare organizations have interpreted the regulations very conservatively.

The Future

HIT has changed the face of healthcare and holds great promise for the future of behavioral health and primary care integration. Health information technology is not only providing cost-effective means of providing superior collaborative treatment, it is paving  the way for reducing the health disparities for people with serious mental illness and other behavioral health conditions.

behavioral health integration

Behavioral Health – Primary Care Integration: Choosing a Model

Which Models Work Best?

There are several model programs for behavioral health and primary care integration in the United States that are currently demonstrating outstanding results, such as Cherokee Health Systems, Intermountain Healthcare, and Washtenaw Community Health Organization. However, to quote Dale Jarvis, of Dale Jarvis and Associates, a national consultant specializing in payment and reimbursement system redesign, financial modeling, and business systems design for healthcare purchasers and providers: “All healthcare is local.”  Behavioral health – primary care partnerships can learn much from the model programs but will need modification to meet the unique needs of their communities. A model that is successful in a rural community may not be effective in an urban setting. State regulations greatly impact the success of various models as well, especially if the model relies heavily on funding sources that may have significant differences from state to state.

The promotion of  behavioral health and primary care integration has been identified nationally as holding promise for improved health outcomes and increased efficiency in the use of healthcare dollars. The United States Department of Health and Human Services, (HHS)  is funding 56 Primary and Behavioral Healthcare Integration (PBHCI) projects in an attempt to identify effective means of integrating healthcare. HHS, in collaboration with the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation (ASPE), seeks to answer three questions about the integration of primary and behavioral healthcare, as noted in this excerpt from the 10/21/10 SAMHSA webinar, Primary and Behavioral Healthcare Integration by Trina Dutta:

  1. Outcome Evaluation: Does the integration of primary and behavioral health care lead to improvements in the behavioral and physical health of the population with serious mental illness (SMI) and/or substance use disorders served by the grantees’ integration models?
  2. Process Evaluation: Is it possible to integrate the services provided by primary care providers and community-based behavioral health agencies (i.e., what are the different structural and clinical approaches to integration being implemented)?
  3. Model Evaluation: Which models and/or respective model features of integrated primary and behavioral health care lead to better mental and physical health outcomes?

(Contractor: RAND Corporation)

In a collaborative effort between the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) and the Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA) a training and technical assistance center, the Center for Integrated Health Solutions, is available for PBHCI grantees and other organizations that are integrating behavioral health and primary care services. The Center for Integrated Health Solutions is a division of the National Council for Community Behavioral Healthcare.