The Importance of Pursuing Mental Health Integration

Why Pursue Mental Health Integration?

It is the right thing to do: The NCCBH vision statement provides the foundation for our work: We are committed to creating and sustaining healthy and secure communities, achieved through a system that holds the needs of consumers paramount, regardless of their ability to pay.

Vital to this commitment is a network of organizations and advocates promoting services of unparalleled value.

NCCBH members primarily serve public sector consumers, those with severe and persistent mental illness or serious emotional disturbance-the needs of this population are often overlooked in primary care and integration planning. We must assure that their needs as well as the needs of the broader community are appropriately addressed.

Many people in the broader community now receive their behavioral healthcare in a primary care setting, and the gap between the medical and behavioral healthcare systems must be bridged: As noted by Robin Dea and many other commentators, there is:

“evidence that many, if not most, people coming into primary care are being treated for psychosocial problems, not organically based medical disease . . . evidence of medical cost offsets from treating behavioral health problems presenting as physical health problems in the primary care setting . . . the assumption that if adequate detection of early stage psychiatric illness took place in primary care, there would be some prevention of patients going to more severe episodes of major psychiatric illnesses . . . and primary care is where most people who have behavioral health problems are in fact seen.”

Some of the important findings from the research field include:

-The Epidemiologic Catchment Area (ECA) Study and articles based on this survey data, reported the finding that about 50% of care for common mental disorders was delivered in general medical settings. However, many subsequent studies have shown that these disorders may be undiagnosed or under-treated.
-Screening systems, treatment guidelines and provider education in primary care are necessary but not sufficient steps to ensure a difference in outcomes.
-Collaborative and stepped care has been shown to achieve outcomes that are better than “usual care”.

There is the opportunity for quality improvement of care within the primary care and specialty behavioral healthcare settings: Studies have shown that many people with depression stop taking their medications before the minimal time required to effectively treat an episode of depression. Patients at Group Health Cooperative who initiated medications for depression with their primary care physician and received targeted stepped up care and relapse prevention support were significantly more likely to adhere to adequate dosages of medication and to demonstrate a greater decrease in depressive symptoms.

Application of research findings such as these through adoption of evidence-based practices in both primary care and specialty behavioral health (BH) settings will result in better outcomes for consumers.

With the publication of Priority Areas for National Action: Transforming Health Care Quality, the Institute of Medicine’s 2003 follow up to Crossing the Quality Chasm: A New Health System for the 21st Century, a major opportunity and challenge has appeared for the public mental health system.

The Quality Chasm recommended the systematic identification of priority areas for national quality improvement; Priority Areas proposes twenty areas for transforming health care nationally. Included in this list are major depression (screening and treatment) and severe and persistent mental illness (focus on treatment in the public sector).

Their inclusion as priority areas, as well as the findings in the Interim Report from the President’s New Freedom Commission on Mental Health, with its observation that the system is “fragmented and in disarray-not from lack of commitment and skill of those who deliver care, but from underlying structural, financing and organizational problems” suggests that the time for new strategies is at hand.

Many people being served by public behavioral health services need better access to primary care: A rationale less frequently articulated for integration is that the specialty BH system, especially the public sector focusing on the severe and persistent mentally ill adult population (SPMI) and seriously emotionally disturbed (SED) children, serves a disabled consumer population with healthcare needs that are frequently under-addressed due to difficulties in obtaining medical services.

Most state Medicaid waivers related to coverage for physical healthcare have focused on enrollment of the TANF population into Medicaid managed care plans, leaving the disabled Medicaid population unable to adequately access care, or in better situations, reliant on “safety net” providers-community health centers (CHCs) or county delivered health services.

Community health centers serve people who need better access to behavioral healthcare. These “safety net” providers serve a broader scope of patients than just the Medicaid population. But many states have implemented mental health Medicaid waivers that focus the public mental health system on the SPMI/SED and Medicaid populations, with minimal levels of support for non-SPMI/SED or uninsured populations. Often there is not a good match of target populations between the two systems. If the Medicaid mental health program also has a highly managed service authorization and payment methodology, there may be additional barriers to reimbursement for mental health services.

This has led to frustration for “safety net” healthcare providers because they have difficulty obtaining behavioral health services for their non-SPMI/SED or uninsured patients. In a recent survey of CHC medical directors, 80% indicated that cost is the main barrier to behavioral health care for their uninsured populations. The recent financing and development of behavioral health services in CHCs addresses this frustration and is just the latest in a series of efforts to acknowledge that a large proportion of the population gets their behavioral health services in primary care.

Because behavioral health clinicians are a resource for assisting people with all types of chronic health conditions: Yet another reason for integration is the potential contribution of BH clinicians regarding behavioral and lifestyle change: providing interventions targeted at better management of chronic disease, supporting and “leveraging” the time of primary care providers through disease management programs.

Disease management activities focus on several areas: early identification of populations at-risk for costly chronic disease (e.g., asthma, diabetes), care interventions that utilize evidence-based practices, education-intensive orientations that focus on both patient and provider, care management and a coordinated approach across multidisciplinary treatment teams, and a method for systematic data collection that measures clinical and cost-effectiveness. Large organized healthcare systems, such as Northern California Kaiser-Permanente, implement their major disease management programs with specifically assigned nurses as care managers and educators.

However, many physicians in individual or group practices do not have access to this level of support unless they are in the network of a health plan with active disease management programs. In markets where primary care and multi-specialty groups have accepted accelerated risk, disease management approaches will be especially value-added.

We are in a time of significant public policy activity regarding financing of the national healthcare system and the uninsured population. As we approach the 40th anniversary of the founding of the community mental health center movement, the dialogue has returned us to our public health beginnings-serving the needs of a population.

The Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA) Primary Care Integration Initiative is currently being implemented across the country. The HRSA initiative includes: identification of system issues related to integration and the development of related strategies; development of a service manual for CHC behavioral health services; development of BH intervention models for CHCs; and grants for establishing BH services in existing CHCs.

Newly funded CHC sites will be expected to provide dental, mental health and substance abuse services, either directly or by subcontract arrangements. CHCs are in the process of decision making about building their own BH services or contracting for BH services, as they prepare their grant applications. (The NCCBH website,, has a Primary Care Integration Resource Center with more details about the HRSA process.)

At the same time that HRSA is putting new BH resources into CHCs, reports are emerging from many states indicating that the public mental health system is funded at somewhere around half the level that is needed. In the private sector, the relentless downward pressure on behavioral health PMPMs has also reduced overall system resources, shifting cost from the private sector to the public sector.

Reports such as these were released prior to the current fiscal crisis in state Medicaid programs; rather than addressing the shortfalls, there are significant new reductions in BH services in many states. And, the implementation of managed care methods for Medicaid have made it difficult for some community based BH providers to continue to enact their mission of serving the needs of the population, regardless of ability to pay.

The implications for system-wide duplication and competition for the scarce resources of BH staff and funding, as well as the opportunity to improve consumer access to both health and behavioral healthcare services, suggests that collaboration is a priority at the national, state and local levels. Good public policy will work at sustaining, supporting and requiring collaboration between the two “safety net” systems of community mental health centers and community health centers.

The conceptual model proposed in this paper can become the basis for HRSA grantees to work with their partners in the public mental health system to fully define working relationships and collaboration on behalf of consumers of care.

In summary, the reasons for integration are grounded in the desire to improve access to both primary care and behavioral health services; ensure that there are evidence-based practices as well as consistent communication and coordination of clinical activities (especially medication management-a key concern of consumers) among the providers serving any single individual; wed the skill sets of primary care physicians and BH clinicians in order to better manage chronic health issues; and, participate in and shape the public policy debate regarding how services should be organized, delivered and financed in ways that ensure that needs of public sector SPMI/SED consumers and the broader community alike are met.