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Mental Health Providers, Consumers, Advocates Urge Legislators to Close the Health Coverage Gap to Increase Access to Behavioral Treatment

Raleigh

“The cost of doing nothing is not nothing,” John Owen, mental health consumer, told Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Mandy Cohen, M.D, at a roundtable to discuss the impact of untreated behavioral health on communities and the challenges of accessing care for those who need it. He called on legislators to follow the lead of 37 other states and expand Medicaid.

One in 20 people in North Carolina lives with a serious mental illness, and more than half the adults with mental illness do not receive needed treatment. In addition to impacting the quality of life of individuals and their families, untreated mental illness or substance use disorder imposes hidden costs on North Carolina’s economy, justice system, healthcare providers and county divisions of social services.

“When participants don’t have insurance, the safety net is the emergency room and often the jails. So much money is going to treat individuals at the moment of crisis,” said Robin Huffman, Executive Director, North Carolina Psychiatric Association.

The group, which included mental health providers, consumers and advocacy leaders from across the state, called on legislators to close the health insurance coverage gap. Expanding Medicaid would provide an estimated 500,000 North Carolinians with access to affordable health care, including 144,000 North Carolinians with behavioral health needs, including substance use disorder. States that have expanded Medicaid have seen substantial improvements in mental health and access to care among low-income adults with chronic conditions.

“When we focus on keeping those with mental illness healthy and prevent them from going into crisis, it is better for people and reduces costs,” said Secretary Cohen. “Legislation has been introduced by Democrats and Republicans alike to close the coverage gap and help North Carolinians access affordable, quality health insurance to keep them well. What are we waiting for?”

“We spend a lot of resources on moments of crisis and not nearly enough on prevention or supporting people in living full and productive lives,” said Kody H. Kinsley, DHHS Deputy Secretary for Behavioral Health & Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities. “Medicaid expansion would go a long way toward our goal of providing the right care, at the right time, in the right setting.” 

Under Secretary Cohen’s leadership, DHHS has prioritized integrating behavioral health and physical health and ensuring timely access to high quality services. In October 2018, NCDHHS received federal approval to implement the transition to Medicaid managed care and integrate physical health, behavioral health and pharmacy benefits. 

Discussion focused on the impact of untreated behavioral health on communities and the challenges of accessing care for those who need it, the state’s transition to Medicaid managed care, and the value that Medicaid expansion could bring to the state in its efforts to improve access to care. 

Attendees included Cherene Allen-Caraco, Promise Resource Network (Charlotte); Valerie Arendt, National Association of Social Workers North Carolina Chapter (Raleigh); Tim Brooks, Carolina Outreach (offices across North Carolina); Natasha Holley, Family Integrated Services (Ahoskie); Robin Huffman, North Carolina Psychiatric Association (Raleigh); John Owen, past member of the Mental Health Commission (Carrboro); I. Azell Reeves, member of the Mental Health Commission (Greensboro); Luke Smith, El Futuro (Durham); and Martha Turner-Quest, North Carolina Psychological Association (Raleigh).