BOSTON (SHNS) – When the chief of Western Massachusetts’ largest behavioral health provider woke up on Thursday, 39 people were still waiting in emergency departments around greater Springfield in need of psychiatric treatment beds. .
That number isn’t unusual, according to Behavioral Health Network President and CEO Steven Winn. At times, the number of people in the area stranded in emergency department boarding due to a lack of available mental health beds “can easily reach into the 50s or 60s,” Winn said.
As policymakers and insurers pursue reforms to improve access to mental health care, Winn warned Thursday that the staffing shortages plaguing many providers are causing downstream effects that are exacerbating the emergency room boarding crisis.
“There are several clinics in Western Massachusetts. BHN operates 11 outpatient clinics where people can come and get treatment for a mental health or addiction problem. We’ve traditionally struggled to hire staff and retain them, and that had to do with funding,” Winn said during a virtual roundtable on Thursday.
“What excites us the most is that the resources are coming into the community behavioral health centers that will allow us to provide living wages to people and hopefully reduce turnover,” he said. added. “The turnover leads to waiting lists, and this kind of sequel continues down the road. When people can’t get the care they need in the community, their needs become more acute, and that’s when they end up in emergency rooms requiring more intensive care.
Due to an understaffed workforce, patients have long struggled to get timely access to community behavioral health services, Winn said. And since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, waiting lists have “multiplied”.
Tania Barber, president and CEO of the Caring Health Center in Springfield, said access to mental health care remains one of the most daunting challenges for communities in the western part of the state amid ‘a shortage of specialty beds and a payment model that ‘long devalued’ behavioral services.
“As the saying goes, services below the neck were reimbursed more than those above,” Barber said.
People have sought behavioral health services at a significantly higher rate in recent years, fueled by both the pressure of the COVID-19 pandemic and a shift towards telehealth. Massachusetts’ Blue Cross Blue Shield on Wednesday reported seeing 8 million in-person and virtual behavioral health visits in the third quarter of 2023, up from 4 million in 2019.
While speakers at Thursday’s Western Massachusetts-focused event highlighted the industry’s continuing challenges, they also said they were optimistic that a series of recent administration actions Baker and the Legislature will begin to turn the tide.
Gov. Charlie Baker and his deputies in 2021 rolled out a “roadmap for behavioral health reform,” which the administration dubbed a “multi-year plan” to change how Bay Staters access care and build stature. community services.
Lawmakers and Baker also agreed this summer to sweeping mental health care legislation that eliminated the prior authorization requirement for acute mental health treatment, required insurers to cover annual wellness exams, be in mental health and emergency services programs, and sought a floor rate for assessment and management to ensure that primary care and mental health providers are reimbursed fairly.
Financing tranches are also available. Audrey Shelto, president and CEO of the Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts Foundation, said the American Rescue Plan Act has made more than $400 million in federal assistance available to behavioral health services in Massachusetts. .
“We have what I have never experienced before in my professional career: an incredible degree of alignment between the executive and legislative branches on needs, challenges and strategies and, as I have said before, I kinda hesitant to say, but a really huge amount of money to spend and invest smartly in our behavioral health system,” Shelto said.
Applications will open this month for healthcare workers to seek between $12,500 and $300,000 in student loan repayment from the state under a $130 million program announced by the Baker administration in November.
Many behavioral and mental health care providers, including social workers, psychiatrists, addiction recovery workers and those working in community health centers, are eligible to apply for the help, which the state will offer with the help of the Massachusetts League of Community Health Centers.
Western Massachusetts behavioral health care leaders said at Thursday’s panel that loan repayment would be a major boost, describing the success of similar past efforts to get providers to stay in community settings. .
“That will definitely help, especially with retention and recruiting efforts,” Barber said. “It’s a huge piece that along with the other residency programs that we had for nurse practitioners or providers, this piece for behavioral health is really essential…I think it’s a great opportunity that will definitely help move the needle farther than where we’ve been.”
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