BOSTON – The COVID pandemic has exacerbated a behavioral health crisis, particularly in Western Massachusetts, underscoring an urgent need for accessible community services, lawmakers and behavioral health care officials in Western Massachusetts have agreed during a recent virtual forum.
“The roadmap for behavioral health is about finding the door and walking through that door to medical evaluation and urgent access to behavioral health care,” said Marylou Sudders, Secretary of Health and Human Services, during the Massachusetts Health Policy Forum sponsored by the Heller School of Brandeis. University. “It’s about that gateway so that ER isn’t the only route for so many people.”
The 2020 statewide COVID-19 Community Impact Survey found that lack of access to mental health and addictions treatment has had a significant impact on individuals and communities. families in western Massachusetts.
Mark Keroack, president and CEO of Baystate Health, said some of the region’s unique public health challenges often relate to transportation issues, lack of economic opportunity and internet access.
“The idea that social stressors promote or unmask behavioral health problems is not new. While the incidence of some behavioral health problems like schizophrenia remains within narrow ranges across geographies and over time, others like depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, or autism vary widely,” Keroack said. “The burden of behavioral health issues is inextricably linked to social issues, including housing insecurity, food insecurity, legal challenges, and substance use disorders.”
Keroack explained that behavioral health has always been the “bad son-in-law” of the medical family, and that chronic underfunding has plagued this field for generations. However, the recent “Roadmap for State Behavioral Health Reform” that Governor Charlie Baker announced in 2021 has helped behavioral health professionals focus on issues at the forefront of their domain.
“We appreciate better now that money invested in behavioral health helps control overall healthcare costs by improving adherence to care plans and healthy lifestyles,” Keroack said. “Understanding these connections has led Baystate Health to integrate behavioral health providers into all of our primary and specialty practices to detect issues earlier and coordinate care across specialties. It has also led to plans to expand our hospital capacities. »
Behavioral health patients in Western Massachusetts are experiencing a shortage of community resources that puts them at risk of worsening their condition, which in turn can significantly increase the demand for hospital care.
Steven Winn, president and CEO of Behavioral Health Network, said sometimes the number of mental health beds needed for residential treatment easily swells into the 50s and 60s.
As lawmakers scramble to implement reforms, Winn said staffing shortages are gradually compounding emergency department crises for many health care providers.
The Behavioral Health Network currently operates 11 outpatient clinics in Western Massachusetts where people can come in and seek treatment for a mental health or addiction problem. However, the lack of funding for hiring and retaining staff has always caused problems.
“What excites us the most is that resources are coming into community behavioral health centers that will allow us to provide living wages to people and hopefully reduce turnover,” Winn said. “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 departments needing more intensive care.
The COVID-19 pandemic and the option of telehealth has encouraged more people in the region to seek behavioral health services. According to the latest statistics from the Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts Foundation, the insurer reported 8 million in-person and virtual behavioral health visits in the third quarter of this year, compared to 4 million in 2019. As a result, demand for professionals skilled is expected to grow.
Applications for repayment of state educational loans under a $130 million program announced by the Baker administration in November will open this month. Social workers, doctors, nurses, psychiatrists, addiction counselors and others working in community health centers will be able to apply and apply for funding between $12,500 and $300,000.
Behavioral health care leaders said the loan repayment program means the state recognizes its role in promoting a healthy behavioral health infrastructure, which will have a significant impact on the labor market.
“It will definitely help, especially with retention and recruitment efforts,” said Tania Barber, president and CEO of Caring Health Center in Springfield. “I think it’s a great opportunity that will definitely help move the needle further than where we were.”
Nino Mtchedlishvili writes for the Gazette as a member of the Boston University Statehouse Program.
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