Mental Health Care on the State Front Burner

Arkansas Department of Human Services officials told lawmakers they are close to finalizing a number of changes to the state’s Medicaid program that they said would expand care for thousands of people suffering from behavioral and mental health issues.

The change comes after more than a year of meetings by a task force dedicated to tackling the state’s mental health crisis, which it says has worsened under the COVID-19 pandemic. The new rules aim to make it easier for people with behavioural, intellectual and mental health problems to access screening and treatment.

State human services officials are proposing a number of changes to the state manuals and codes on Medicaid, which govern how Medicaid pays for services and treatments. Those changes would mean that health care providers would be reimbursed for more preventive care and screening, while allowing physicians to provide more monitoring and reduce labor shortages.

During a meeting Monday, Human Services officials guided lawmakers through changes to the state’s Medicaid program for Arkansas with behavioral, developmental or intellectual disabilities, known as the provider-led Arkansas Shared Savings Unit, or PASSE. Also known. The PASSE program provides government-funded health care for more than 55,000 adults and children with special health care needs, who often require home care. DHS officials said the program, created in 2017, has been in a state of steady improvement, but the COVID-19 pandemic has put more pressure on it.

The department has also called for increased reimbursement rates for assertive community treatment services, care for adults with severe mental illness, and in-home intensive care for children. Human Services officials said the rule change would also provide more clinical oversight for home care.

“There [are] A lot of people are getting a service, but maybe it’s not working for them — they’re getting an unnecessary service,” said Melissa Weather-Ton, director of the Division of Developmental Disability Services for the department. Because we have more people, more needs and less staff.” The changes stem from a task force lawmakers created in 2021 to study mental health issues in Arkansas and issue a report. State Representative DeAnn Vault, the sponsor of the legislation creating the force, told fellow lawmakers it was the start of months of study and updates to the state’s Medicaid rules.

Watt, a Republican from Horatio, said, “We’ve made great progress, but there’s still a lot more to do.”

Watt told lawmakers the state is in the midst of a mental health crisis caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Watt said depression and suicide rates for teens are on the rise, while jails and prisons are filled with adults suffering from a wide range of conditions, from increased drug addiction to untreated mental health problems. Watt said the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated an already serious problem with drug addiction, mental health and stunted treatment for the elderly and those with intellectual disabilities.

“I was hearing from providers that there was not a good bridge between them and DHS, so I thought the best thing to do was to have it all come together in one room,” Watt said.

The changes still need to be approved by the Arkansas Legislative Council, a body of state lawmakers that provides oversight of the executive branch, which is scheduled to meet again in December.

Human Services officials have also proposed changes to state rules that would allow workers in similar fields to more easily fill labor shortages in behavioral health. Since most of the emphasis is on home care, the department will change the rules to allow non-professionals in the same health care fields seen by physicians to provide care.

“We’ve had these providers that just provide care for clients with intellectual disabilities, and we’ve had providers that just provide services for behavioral health, and the work that we’re doing and this task force has really shown us That these are all the same types of employees,” Weatherton said.

The department intends to use state funds and federal dollars from the American Rescue Plan Act for the retention and recruitment of behavioral health care workers.

While department officials have proposed changes to state regulations, some behavioral and mental health problems will need to be addressed through legislation. Next session, Watt said lawmakers will continue to work on ways to address the labor shortage in health care, telemedicine and ways to provide more mental health care in schools, where children often become unsupervised.

“If I had to guess it would be [addressed through] Multiple bills,” Watt said. “Mental health will be a big priority.”

Rep. Dean Watt, R-Horatio, discusses the report of a study on mental and behavioral health at the State Capitol in Little Rock, Monday, during a meeting of the healthcare subcommittees of the State House and Senate Public Health, Welfare and Labor Committees. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Thomas Methe)

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