Behavioral Health Leaders Hopeful Biden Will Invest in, Permanently Expand Telehealth

Since taking office January 20, President Biden has announced several behavioral health initiatives and orders, some that have been celebrated for increasing behavioral health access and others that have faced criticism for doing the opposite. Still, most behavioral health stakeholders seem optimistic that the new administration will be able to deliver on many of its pro-behavioral health promises.

That hopeful group includes experts and analysts who shared their wishes and expectations during a recent webinar hosted by the College for Behavioral Health Leadership (CBHL).

Telehealth was among the subjects up for discussion. The use of telehealth by behavioral health patients has soared since the onset of the pandemic and has subsequently attracted a significant amount of capital to the digital behavioral health space.

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Pamela Greenberg, the president and CEO of the Association for Behavioral Health and Wellness (ABHW), said she doesn’t want to see that progress undone anytime soon.

“We can’t forget telehealth,” Greenberg, one of five participants on the webinar, said when asked what should be among the Biden Administration’s top priorities in behavioral health. “You can’t not pay attention to telehealth in the next few years.”

Greenberg specifically stressed the need to expand medication-assisted treatment (MAT) for individuals with substance use disorder (SUD) and how telehealth can help make that a reality.

Amid the pandemic, restrictions have been relaxed on delivering MAT via telehealth. But prior to the COVID-19 emergency, individuals were required to have an initial in-person visit before MAT services could commence, which can serve as a roadblock for individuals without transportation or who live in areas short on qualified MAT prescribers.

“We’d like to eliminate that requirement,” Greenberg said, speaking on behalf of ABHW. “It’s very burdensome for people.”

However, Greenberg doesn’t necessarily endorse doing away with all virtual care rules. Instead, she said she supports research into telehealth to gauge its efficacy for different kinds of patients.

“We need some research to see … what quality of care is being provided,” she said. “Telehealth may not be right for all behavioral health treatments [or] in all settings for all people. … We’ll definitely support research in that area before we move forward with anything more permanent.”

The discussion also touched upon the overall infrastructure of telehealth service networks, particularly the new National Suicide Prevention Hotline, which is in the works.

Panelist Kana Enomoto, a Washington, D.C.-based senior health care expert with McKinsey & Company, said she’s hopeful the new administration will effectively deploy resources to fully roll out the hotline’s new 988 number, which is set to begin operating by July 2022.

The number was created as part of the National Suicide Hotline Designation Act, which Congress passed last September and then-President Trump signed into law shortly thereafter. The three-digit number is designed to make it easier for people in crisis to get behavioral health help.

“We anticipate that when 988 turns on, we’re going to see some significant volume of calls diverted from 911,” Enomoto said during the webinar. “Hopefully, [it will mean] better first contact for people who are experiencing a mental health or substance use crisis, as well as [a reduction of] the burden on our … first responders, emergency rooms, jails and other law enforcement because we’re going to be able to route people into care that’s more suited to their needs.”

With $4 billion earmarked by Biden for mental health and SUD care as part of his America Rescue Plan stimulus package, webinar participants were overall optimistic that the funding could also sufficiently tackle other common behavioral health pain points, like workforce shortages and insufficient investment in patient access to mental health care. It’ll be up to behavioral health providers to help the administration tackle all those problems and more, according to panel moderator Ron Manderscheid, president and CEO of the National Association of County Behavioral Health and Developmental Disability Directors (NACBHDD), as well as the National Association for Rural Mental Health (NARMH).

“I think we need to explore how we fit into this, and what we need to be doing going forward in behavioral health [so] that we actually can become part of the new dawn,” Manderscheid said.

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