ACP Calls for Improved Mental Health Care Access for All

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In response to request for information, ACP advocates for policies expanding access to telehealth and integration of primary and behavioral health services

Nov 19, 2021 (ACP) – The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic dramatically increased the demand for mental health care while exacerbating existing access issues, and the American College of Physicians is calling for policies that expand access to telehealth services and integrate primary and behavioral health services.

Recently, the U.S. Senate Finance Committee asked key stakeholders to supply ideas for improving access to mental and behavioral health care. ACP was quick to offer a wish list of constructive solutions and policy initiatives including passage of a bill aimed at promoting physician wellness.

“The big picture is that we want to improve access and payment for mental health care services after the public health emergency expires and make sure that these services, including telehealth and collaborative care models are still available so patients get the care they need,” said Brian Buckley, ACP senior associate for legislative affairs.

The pandemic showed that telehealth for mental and behavioral health services increases access to care. CMS has announced they will continue to allow ongoing coverage and flexibilities for mental and behavioral health services provided by telehealth and audio-only means after the public health emergency is lifted.

Audio-only services, in particular, are instrumental for patients who do not have the requisite broadband/cellular phone networks, Buckley noted. ACP also supports efforts that lift geographic restrictions to allow access to services from home or a rural health clinic or hospital if the technology is not available at home, he said.

Also high on the ACP wish list for improving access to mental and behavioral health care is the funding and promotion of care models that integrate behavioral health and primary care. Such models can improve mental and physical health and quality of life while keeping costs down.

ACP urged the Senate to pass legislation that would provide grants to primary care physicians who choose to deliver behavioral health care through the Collaborative Care Model. This model involves a primary care physician working with a psychiatric consultant and a care manager to better manage behavioral health patients.

In addition, the patient-centered medical home integrates primary and behavioral care, therefore boosting such access. In this model, behavioral health consultants deliver brief interventions to help primary care physicians treat a variety of issues like depression, substance use and sleep disorders. “These models will help assure that patients don't slip through the cracks,” Buckley said.

ACP also reinforced its strong support for the Lorna Breen Act in the letter to the Senate Finance Committee. This bill aims to help prevent burnout, suicide and other mental and behavioral health issues among health care workers. In August 2021, the U.S. Senate passed the Dr. Lorna Breen Health Care Provider Protection Act, and it now awaits a vote in the House.

“Physicians have been under immense strain during the pandemic, the rate of burnout is very high, and the stress load continues to increase,” Buckley said. This bill would provide grants, education and awareness to ease physician burnout. “Hopefully it will be signed into law and will be a great help to our doctors,” he said.

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