Congress' HITECH Act and Good Patient Care | Commentary

The Health Information Technology for Economic and Clinical Health Act’s incentive to encourage “meaningful use” of electronic health records has helped hundreds of thousands of eligible providers begin using EHRs to store patient data, coordinate and communicate about their patients’ care, engage in data measurement, quality monitoring efforts designed to improve outcomes and lower costs. Unfortunately, behavioral health and substance-use treatment providers were never fully included in this program. As a result, they have limited access to EHRs and the essential tools they provide.

Healthcare IT is a priority across the behavioral health community; without the ability to integrate modern HIT tools into behavioral health, I/DD and child and family services, these communities will continue to lag behind the physical health providers in lowering costs and improving client outcomes. The result? Lower quality of care for the 26 percent of the U.S. population who will receive a mental illness diagnosis this year.

Consider the statistics: According to the latest reports by the American Psychological Association, 29 percent of adults with medical conditions also have mental health conditions, and 68 percent of adults with mental health conditions also have medical conditions.

A study by Virginia Commonwealth University found mental health issues following cardiac arrests plague anywhere from 15 to 50 percent or more of cardiac arrest survivors. Two-thirds suffered from depression or anxiety months to years after experiencing cardiac arrest.

As many as one in six of the veterans who served our nation and defended its freedom suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder. Forty-eight percent of vets are faced with mental health challenges — such as depression and substance use disorders — and the Veterans Affairs estimates that every day 22 American heroes take their own lives because of the stresses they experienced in service. In fact, according to the Pentagon, more U.S. soldiers die each year by taking their own lives than on the battlefield.

Amongst other methods, EHRs assist in suicide prevention through evidence-based suicide screening tools. They offer alerts to ensure protocols are followed for at-risk clients and seamlessly handle releases for providers to engage family members in client care — particularly when a client is at risk.

In short, in the interest in our nation’s health, Congress needs to make the same investment in behavioral health care as it has made in physical health care.

In the 113th Congress, important bills have been introduced in the House and Senate, respectively. In August 2013, Rep. Tim Murphy, R-Pa., introduced H.R. 2957, the Behavioral Health Information Technology Act of 2013 in the U.S. House. In the U.S. Senate, Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., and Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, introduced strikingly similar measures. These bills help community mental health centers, psychiatric hospitals, clinical psychologists and inpatient/outpatient addiction providers qualify for Medicaid and Medicare incentive payments under Meaningful Use.

HIT holds the key to coordinated care in integrated settings. As such, Congress must pass federal legislative reforms to attain interoperable EHRs that enable doctors, hospitals, medical specialists and behavioral health providers to share health information — truly treating the “whole person” and improving care.

In a time when Congress will be called upon to balance a wide spectrum of competing priorities and the American people will be examining the newly elected to determine if they will move our country forward or suffocate it in gridlock, reintroducing these bills — bills that are good and important for all American people regardless of which party they support — will demonstrate that this Congress is wise and means business.

In addressing the changes still needed to healthcare reform, I urge you to make it a top priority give the behavioral health and addiction communities the tools they need to both serve people with serious mental health and addiction issues  . . .  as well as to save lives.

Kevin Scalia is executive vice president of corporate development at Netsmart (ntst.com). He is a founding member of the Behavioral Health IT Coalition.

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