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BPC Launches Behavioral Health Integration Task Force with Recommendations to Address COVID-19 Mental Health Needs

Headshot of Joann Donnellan
Joann Donnellan

Washington, DC – The Bipartisan Policy Center today launched a new Behavioral Health Integration Task Force to improve the integration of primary and behavioral health care to achieve better health outcomes and reduce costs. The task force also released recommendations to quickly address the urgent need to access behavioral health care as our nation faces the COVID-19 pandemic. Co-chaired by former Rep. Patrick Kennedy; former U.S. Sen. John E. SununuSheila Burke, fellow, BPC; strategic advisor, Baker Donelson; and Richard Frank, professor of health policy, Harvard University, the task force will develop long-term solutions over the coming months to better integrate behavioral and primary care in the United States. Moreover, BPC is calling for comments on these important policy issues through an online survey.

Behavioral Health Integration Task Force members include:

  • Nella Domenici, former Chief Financial Officer, Bridgewater Associates; Daughter of the late Sen. Domenici
  • Regina BenjaminM.D., former U.S. Surgeon General
  • Kenna Chic, former President, Project Lighthouse Peer-Support System
  • Charles Curie, former Administrator, Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration
  • Erik Paulsen, former U.S. Representative, Minnesota
  • Ted Strickland, former U.S. Representative and Governor, Ohio
  • Vikki Wachino, former Deputy Administrator and Director of the Center for Medicaid and CHIP Service, Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services

In the past year, nearly one in five adults (47 million) reported having a mental illness, and more than 11 million had a serious mental health condition. Now with COVID-19, a recent poll shows nearly 50% of adults said their mental health has been negatively affected by the stress and worry over the pandemic.

As the COVID-19 crisis exacerbates the mental health and substance use disorder needs facing our country, the Behavioral Health Integration Task Force offers the following policy recommendations for immediate action, but acknowledges that even more needs to be done:

1. Expand access to telehealth. This will ensure that people who are struggling with pre-existing behavioral health conditions, as well as new conditions resulting from the COVID-19 crisis, get the help they need. The task force recognizes that lack of broadband is a major barrier to telehealth in rural and tribal communities and will consider long-term solutions, but in the interim recommends lifting the following restrictions:

  • Congress and states should align commercial insurance and Medicaid telehealth policies with Medicare telehealth provisions in the CARES Act and recent Trump administration waivers. Medicaid and commercial insurers should reimburse telehealth services at in-person rates for the duration of the public health emergency, with consideration for permanent changes.

2. Bolster training for an integrated care workforce. Longstanding workforce shortages of both primary care and behavioral health providers across the country are mounting due to the impact of COVID-19. This necessitates a call for action to support the current primary care workforce in expanding access to behavioral health care:

  • Congress should provide funds to the Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA) to support fast-tracked targeted training opportunities for providers. This includes training for primary care physicians, social workers, nurses, and peer and recovery support specialists emphasizing evidence-based practices, as well as interventions to address immediate mental health needs due to COVID-19, including PTSD, anxiety, depression, and social isolation.

As Congress considers the immediate workforce training and re-deployment required for addressing urgent needs, such as testing and contact-tracing, the task force asks that Congress also consider the workforce needed to address the skyrocketing behavioral health needs.

“The COVID-19 pandemic is increasing the demand for behavioral health services and straining our nation’s already fragmented and underfunded system,” said members of the Behavioral Health Integration Task Force. “We must act now to give individuals and families the services and supports that best meet their behavioral health needs that are being exacerbated by this current crisis.”

Over the coming months, the Behavioral Health Integration Task Force will work alongside an advisory group of stakeholders, advocates, and experts, to build upon BPC’s 2019 report to develop policy recommendations for release early 2021. Long-term recommendations will focus on 1) promoting care delivery models and payment reform to support widespread implementation of integrated care; 2) addressing workforce shortages on integrated care teams, and promoting integrated workforce training and education; 3) targeting telehealth and health IT issues that prevent widespread use of electronic health records and integrated care delivery, and 4) giving attention to special populations who face unique barriers, such as communities of color, veterans, and children, when accessing behavioral health care.

Funding for this project is provided by Well Being Trust, a national foundation dedicated to advancing the mental, social, and spiritual health of the nation; The Sunflower Foundation: Health Care for Kansans, a philanthropic organization that directs resources toward helping Kansans and Kansas communities achieve and maintain optimal health; and The New York Community Trust, a public grantmaking foundation that connects past, present, and future generous New Yorkers with vital nonprofits working to make a healthy, equitable, and thriving community for all.

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