By Joel White and David Guth
May is Mental Health Month. More than just a footnote on a calendar, this month is a time set aside to reaffirm support for the one in five Americans affected by mental health conditions who deserve to live free from stigma, with respect from others, and with access to treatment when and where they need it.
Our organizations have made a lasting commitment to this often-unseen population, with Health IT Now advocating for policy changes in Washington, and Centerstone on the front lines of providing treatment to almost 180,000 individuals in nearly a half-dozen states.
Most recently, we have teamed up to address the most glaring mental health concerns facing Americans today: the nationwide opioid epidemic. Our work with a diverse cross-section of prescribers, dispensers, and patient groups on the Opioid Safety Alliance is already getting results that will yield 21st century, forward-thinking solutions to reduce healthcare costs and save more lives from the grips of addiction.
While this crisis is rightly at the forefront of so many Americans’ minds, we know that mental health challenges take on many forms and can, many times, be intertwined with substance use issues. Centerstone specializes in the treatment and rehabilitation of individuals with a wide range of mental health and substance abuse disorders. Mental Health Month should serve as a reminder that these illnesses do not discriminate. Such challenges could impact your neighbor, friend, colleague, or family member, but it doesn’t have to stand in the way of an individual’s full life.
Health IT Now and Centerstone share a belief that technology has an important role to play in improving access to treatment, improving the quality of treatment, and keeping individuals engaged in their recovery. By harnessing the tools of today, we can stamp out stigma, help those disadvantaged by matters of distance and geographic location, and break cycles of addiction and misuse.
Here are three ways we can put technology to work in our homes and doctors’ offices right away:
Modernize Patient Privacy Laws
If you are one of the 20 million Americans aged 18 or older treated each year for a substance abuse disorder, you might be surprised to know that the laws on the books today place an electronic wall between your addiction treatment records and the rest of your health history. In most situations, federal regulations keep this information even from your own doctors, who want to help.
It’s the result of a decades-old law known as 42 CFR Part 2, whose mandate to keep substance use records confidential suggests that substance use disorders – whether for opioids or another substance – and their accompanying treatments should be concealed or viewed with shame. There is no reason a treating professional should not have access to patient information because it impedes care coordination and prevents prescribers from making fully informed clinical decisions based on a clear picture of a patient’s overall health – something that has proven deadly in the past.
Together, Health IT Now and Centerstone have set out to change this broken status quo. Just this month, in a victory for patients, the House Energy and Commerce Committee overwhelmingly passed the Overdose Prevention and Patient Safety Act – legislation to align the laws governing addiction treatment records with the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), which protects the confidentiality of the rest of a patient’s medical history. We’re joining forces with coalitions like the Partnership to Amend 42 CFR Part 2 to push for a vote on the House floor in the near term.
Expand Access to Innovative Care for Our Nation’s Heroes
20 million Americans receive care through the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) today. Centerstone has long supported these hometown heroes and their families through an array of specialized military services that help those affected by PTSD, offer resources for those at risk of homelessness, and provide employment counseling to veterans transitioning to private sector careers.
The VA must do its part to most effectively serve our men and women in uniform as well. That is why Health IT Now has led the fight for passage of the Veterans E-Health and Telemedicine Support (VETS) Act.
Under current law, the VA may only perform at-home telehealth services when the patient and provider are located in the same state. For many veterans, however, the closest provider to their home could be just across the state line. This disparity in the law hits rural and disabled veterans especially hard.
The VETS Act will break down geographic barriers that, for too long, have prevented our veterans from accessing the care they need when and where they need it. By allowing VA telehealth providers to more easily treat patients across state lines, we can ensure that recent advances in technology-enabled care reach the most deserved among us and spur better outcomes for these 20 million brave Americans.
With Health IT Now’s strong support, the VETS Act just passed the House and Senate as part of the VA MISSION Act of 2018 and now heads to President Trump’s desk for his signature.
Leverage the Power of Telehealth to Stem the Tide of Opioid Abuse
While private insurance and even other government payers such as Medicaid and the Federal Employees Health Benefits Program are recognizing the power of telehealth to improve care and lower costs, Medicare continues to fall behind.
This isn’t just unfair for older Americans – given that the Medicare population has among the fastest-growing rates of opioid use disorder in the country, the program’s sluggish uptake of new technologies could mean the difference between life and death for victims of this disease.
We know that telehealth can bridge the gap of distance and stigma by allowing beneficiaries to receive care when and where they need it, but inflexible bureaucratic restrictions are putting that possibility out of reach for too many. The bipartisan Expanding Telehealth Response to Ensure Addiction Treatment (eTREAT) Act, introduced this week in the Senate, and the similar Access to Telehealth Services for Opioid Use Disorders Act in the House can change that.
With 64,000 Americans dying at the hands of a drug overdose in 2016 alone – a statistic that belies the even higher death toll when combined with fatalities from alcohol abuse and other legal substances – lawmakers must use every tool in their toolbox to bring healing to those suffering under the weight of addiction. These commonsense measures would mark a good start.
Together, Health IT Now and Centerstone will continue responding to behavioral healthcare needs in the halls of Congress and in the hearts and minds of patients and families. Mental Health Month is a reminder that, while the challenges in this arena are big – especially for the person in the throes of addiction, trying to get well – the hope for recovery is bigger.
With an assist from Washington, we can find ways to deliver help more quickly and effectively to those most in need.
Joel White is the Executive Director of Health IT Now. David Guth is Chief Executive Officer and co-founder of Centerstone, one of the nation’s largest behavioral healthcare providers.