Arkansas Advocate: Arkansas lawmakers consider improving mental and behavioral health policy

Arkansas Advocate: Arkansas lawmakers consider improving mental and behavioral health policy

Arkansas lawmakers are compiling a report to recommend legislation in the 2023 session to strengthen mental and behavioral health services for Arkansans of all ages and incomes.

The Joint Health Services Subcommittee met Monday to discuss the strengths and weaknesses of the state’s existing resources for mental and behavioral health care, pursuant to a 2021 law requiring the Legislature to recommend possible policy changes in 2023.

Rep. DeAnn Vaught (R-Horatio) sponsored the 2021 law and told the subcommittee she hopes the discussion will lead to policies that make Arkansas a “flagship” example of health care infrastructure. mental health to be followed by other states.

“I was hearing from providers saying there was no good bridge between them and DHS,” she said, referring to the state Department of Human Services. “I thought the best way to handle this was to all get together in one room and do our best to try to put mental health at the top of people’s list.”

The Legislative Assembly has a Mental Health and Behavioral Health Task Force divided into several sub-groups. Vaught chairs the prevention and early intervention subgroup, and she said he considered creating a DHS role that would focus on collaboration among state agencies to help Arkansans in crisis or to risk of crisis.

“A lot of these groups had no idea what each group was doing, and maybe if we had someone in charge of that, those bridges could be built a lot faster than they are now,” Vaught said.

The subgroup chairs will write a report on Monday’s discussion and submit it to the Arkansas Legislative Council for further consideration.

More than 34,000 children and nearly 15,000 adults in Arkansas with behavioral health issues are “unresponsive” to outpatient counseling, and they need home and community services to avoid the crises that could place them in psychiatric hospitals, according to data provided by the DHS.

More than 55,000 Arkansans are enrolled in DHS’ Provider-Led Arkansas Shared Savings Entity (PASSE), a program for Medicaid recipients with complex behavioral, developmental, or intellectual health conditions.

DHS staff studied the program and determined that most PASSE members receive the services they need, but others do not receive services in the amount or duration needed to meet their needs. said Melissa Weatherton, director of DHS’s Division of Developmental Disabilities Services.

The department recently received a report on its services that will further contribute to policy recommendations, Weatherton said.

“We are seeing services that we believe would be beneficial to PASSE members and yet are not being used,” she said.

DHS Secretary Mark White said the department is working on policy changes involving more than just Medicaid-reimbursable services, though those services are a frequent topic of discussion about potential improvements.

“We want (health care providers) to partner with good organizations that also provide other resources,” White said. “We know the social determinants of health. We know this impacts individuals and their ability to recover and do well. Whether it’s housing, employment or education, we want hospitals to find those community partners and refer people where they need them.

Shawna Burns, counselor and owner of a mental health practice in Harrison, said the Legislature’s efforts gave her “hope” that mental and behavioral health care would become more accessible to Arkansans.

Mental health providers across the state are “tired” because there aren’t enough of them to meet the needs of their communities in a timely manner, Burns said, and most providers have waiting lists of several months.

“When a child is suicidal and in crisis, and they can’t get help, it’s too long,” she said.

Many people mistakenly view mental health as simply helping someone manage their symptoms and stay alive, Burns said. In reality, there are more possibilities, she added.

“There’s so much we can do to not only help people get better, but to stay better and overcome their issues completely,” Burns said.

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