Ben Anderson, LCSW, Behavioral Health Director of MCHC Health Centers, was asked to serve as a behavioral health workforce champion, on a panel of experts providing vital information to Capital leaders. Senator Wiener, Chair of the California Senate Mental Health Caucus, and his colleagues were in attendance.
The topics for discussion were the role that Community Health Centers play in the delivery of mental health services, ways in which we can improve the delivery of care, and the best paths forward to overcome access and equity challenges. We are grateful that our state leaders are involving community health centers in this important discussion that will impact the wellbeing of our rural community.
Ben joined other health care leaders in thanking Capitol legislators for their efforts that have allowed health centers like MCHC to serve our community in non-traditional ways, such as conducting therapy sessions by telephone or telehealth during the pandemic (an emergency statute was passed); and for then extending these flexibilities beyond the declared emergency. Continuing these flexibilities will help ensure that patients who are unable to make it to the clinic for in-person visits, be able to talk to their therapist over the telephone or via a video visit.
Ben states, “I appreciate that our state’s leaders are reaching out to rural health centers to understand the unique challenges that come with living in an area with limited internet and cell phone coverage, and no mass transit. Some of our patients, drive one hour, each way, just to get to their appointment; and patients residing in Lake County or Covelo must traverse dangerous roads. Others, without a vehicle or money for gas, may walk a mile or more to get to the nearest bus stop. If you have chronic pain or are feeling sick, you are not likely to make this walk, instead, you are likely to just not get the care you need.”
This is not only an issue of access but of equity. Why should low-income patients have less access to mental health treatment? Community members without transportation, high-speed internet, and/or computers should still receive care. Additionally, we have some patients with compromised immune systems, who risk becoming seriously ill every time they go into a public area and are exposed to bacteria and viruses.
Health care leaders assertively advocated for the continuation of additional flexibilities that have been allowed during the declared emergency. One such flexibility is the ability for health centers to utilize the services of mental health providers that have obtained a master’s degree and are registered with the California Board of Behavioral Sciences, but who have not yet accrued the full 3,200 hours of experience, under the supervision of a licensed provider, to be eligible to take the licensing exams. Outpatient Specialty Mental Health services have had this option in the past, however, community health centers have not, until the COVID emergency. It is our hope that these flexibilities will continue beyond the declared emergency and help curtail the shortage of trained therapists to meet the higher demand that California is currently experiencing.
In addition to participating on the panel, Ben recently began co-chairing the Behavioral Health Peer Network with the California Primary Care Association and together with experts from health centers all over the state, will be looking at how we can better structure our model of care to help individuals and families deal with the stresses these last few years have brought. As we reflect on this past year, we see how vitally important advocating for these changes is. Our team of therapists has been working with community members experiencing PTSD, Depression, Anxiety, Substance Use, Domestic Violence, etc. and we know that these struggles will continue past the time when COVID is no longer on the front pages. As we look at how our patients have utilized behavioral health services in this past year, mostly via phone or telehealth, we see several key trends: More of our community members wanted to talk to a therapist and more patients who scheduled an appointment, kept it!
MCHC’s CEO, Scott McFarland, speaks to the impact of these efforts, “Community Health Centers are central to the delivery of health care in our nation, serving over thirty million patients, in over 12,000 communities across the country. Therefore, we must represent our community’s needs and educate legislators on how the care model needs to be expanded. Having one of our Clinical Leaders at the forefront of this effort will help drive the message and guide the future of how behavioral health services are delivered, in a way that builds equity and access. I so appreciate the leadership and expertise that Ben Anderson brings, not only to our health center but also to local and state leaders.”
MCHC Health Centers includes Hillside Health Center and Dora Street Health Center in Ukiah, Little Lake Health Center in Willits and Lakeview Health Center in Lakeport. Learn more at www.mchcinc.org.