Behavioral health disorders, including mental illness and substance abuse, affect nearly one in five Americans. Some groups, such as veterans, LBGTQ individuals, people of color, and rural residents, are at higher risk of being undiagnosed and untreated. People with certain mental health diagnoses live shorter lives and often have concurrent physical ailments that drive their health care costs sky-high.

Addressing mental health and substance use disorders is an urgent matter, and expanded access to treatment is key. As providers of emergency, inpatient, and outpatient care, hospitals and health systems are often the first-line responders for behavioral health disorders, as well as the conduits to community-based organizations that provide care. 

Hospitals and health systems have many initiatives underway to increase access to behavioral health services in the communities they serve. At Hackensack Meridian Health, New Jersey’s largest health network, we are focusing on a number of areas. 

Through our merger this year with Carrier Clinic, among New Jersey’s most respected behavioral health care providers, we are improving care by expanding access, better coordinating care and innovating treatment for patients with a primary diagnosis of mental illness and substance use disorder.

Our plan includes launching many new programs and models of care including: the first Medical/Behavioral Health Urgent Care Center in the state to open this summer that will include tele-psychiatry support; development of dedicated Addiction Treatment Centers to address the opioid epidemic; and continued growth of our Pediatric Psychiatry Collaborative, which has already screened more than 150,000 children for behavioral health issues. We are also addressing the severe shortage of mental health physicians with our Hackensack Meridian Health School of Medicine Psychiatry Residency Program and Child Psychiatry Fellowship programs, to train and retain the most talented behavioral health professionals here in New Jersey.

A new Trendwatch report from the AHA makes a strong case that the success of this important work advances value for patients, providers, and communities by both improving outcomes and lowering costs, often dramatically. The report notes that while hospitals and health systems are working to increase access and integrate behavioral health care into medical settings, lawmakers and regulators can help by addressing some remaining barriers. 

These include: 

  • Improving care reimbursement rates by enforcing parity laws and developing new payment models for services.
  • Increasing funding to train and develop more behavioral health professionals.
  • Removing regulatory impediments to care coordination and information sharing.
  • Partnering with community organizations, patients, and caregivers to identify and expand programs that reduce stigma and combat barriers to care. 
  • Ensuring sufficient insurance coverage for behavioral health services.

More than 70 years ago, the World Health Organization made it clear, stating “health is a state of complete mental, social and physical well-being, not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.” 

Wise words then and now, they should guide our nation’s strategy for treating behavioral health disorders.

Joseph A. Miller, Ph.D., FACHE is vice president of Behavioral Health Care Transformation Services at Hackensack Meridian Health. He also is the 2019 chair of the AHA’s Section for Psychiatric and Substance Abuse Services.

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