Expanding community health center options to improve access for low-income communities

Mental illness, the theme of our 2016 Better Government Competition, impacts all of us. In the third part of our ongoing blog series, below, we explore access to mental health care for low-income communities.

Nurse checking female patient's pulse on wrist, close-upCommunity health centers (CHCs) are one of the most important providers of health care for low-income communities – they are a low-cost delivery option for many Americans who would otherwise have very limited access to care. They offer a wide range of services, from basic health checkups to cancer screenings. But a critical form of care, mental health services, remains unacceptably absent from the vast majority of CHCs.

According to the National Association of Community Health Centers (NACHC), only about 70 percent of community health centers provide some form of mental health counseling and treatment options, while fewer than 55 percent meet all the criteria of entities that provide integrated behavioral health and primary care. A  mere 20 percent offer 24-hour crisis intervention services, which can be life-saving.
To put these numbers into perspective, it is important to remember that depression is the third most common reason for a visit to a health center, trailing only diabetes and hypertension. Evidently, there is a significant disconnect between what many CHCs are providing and what low-income communities actually need.

These issues have not gone unnoticed. With the passage of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) in 2010, Congress authorized an investment of $11 billion over five years to expand CHC programming and broaden access for lower-income communities. The legislation included significantly more funding for mental health care, equal to  $54.6 million in spending in 2014 to integrate behavior health care with primary care in a greater number of centers.

This commitment to expanding health center capacity is a good start, but it is not enough. Policymakers should take more aggressive action to ensure that mental health services can be effectively integrated with primary care.

Pioneer invited Better Government Competition submissions that employ creative financing mechanisms to expand these health centers and to facilitate improved quality of care in all mental health services. With the great ideas we received, we can establish channels for access to mental health services for those who need it most.

Join our mission to improve care for those with mental illness by attending our awards gala on June 20th to honor the top proposals from across the country

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