Bill seeks EHR funding for mental health providers

By Howard Newman
December 1st, 2013

In 2009, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, President Obama’s economic stimulus plan, provided nearly $20 billion in incentive funding for health information technology. Known as the Health Information Technology for Economic and Clinical Health (HITECH) Act, this federal program enables physicians and other healthcare providers to receive incentive payments for implementing electronic health records (EHRs).

While doctors, hospitals and community healthcare centers were able to take advantage of this program and upgrade their recordkeeping, an important group of service providers were not included. Psychologists, mental health providers, substance abuse professionals and facilities offering these services were not eligible for funding under HITECH.

Introduced by Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) on Sept. 18, U.S. Senate Bill 1517, the Behavioral Health Information Technology Act of 2013, is an attempt to eliminate this inequality. Members of the National Council for Behavioral Health (National Council) worked closely with Sen. Whitehouse to draft the bill.

“If behavioral health organizations and providers are really going to be part of the healthcare delivery system, access to electronic health records is going to be key,” says Vic DiGravio, president/CEO of the Association for Behavioral Healthcare, the Massachusetts chapter of the National Council. “For any provider that doesn’t have EHR implemented in the next 5-10 years, it’s going to be almost impossible for them to be part of the larger health delivery system.”

Electronic health records serve two functions: the provision of sophisticated, detailed, and centralized recordkeeping and the ability to share this information with all appropriate providers.

EHRs include all information relevant to client care, including providers’ notes, medications, past medical history, immunizations, laboratory data and other test results as well as details of any problems. Electronic health records reduce errors by improving the precision and clarity of these records. They reduce the duplication of tests, decrease delays in treatment and enable clients to make informed decisions about care.

In addition, EHRs enable providers to support and access other activities related to the client’s care. Medical treatment and behavioral care are not mutually exclusive; providers of these services need to work in tandem.

“We want behavioral health to be part of the [overall healthcare] system,” notes DiGravio. “There is clear research that shows that if people have a comorbid behavioral health issue along with a physical health issue, the cost of treating the health issue is two to three times higher if the behavior health issue goes unaddressed.”

The high cost of purchasing, and maintaining, a modern EHR system, however, has created difficulties for providers.

“The behavioral health community has been the most isolated from the rest of the healthcare community,” says Elena J. Eisman, Ed.D., ABPP, executive director of the Massachusetts Psychological Association. “One of the ways that the isolation is broken down is through having access to electronic health records, back and forth with appropriate privacy protections.

“The financial burden of purchasing them, on top of all the reimbursement cuts that psychologists have experienced, calls out for some help.”

That is precisely the goal of S. 1517, the Behavioral Health Information Technology Act of 2013. In order to provide quality care in the 21st century, electronic health records – offering complete coordination with the entire healthcare system – are not an extravagance, they are a necessity.

“Not having any incentive payments,” says Eisman, “really hampers us from being connected to the larger healthcare system.”

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