Amid rising suicide rates and a raging opioid crisis, the key to improving behavioral health care services nationally is to structure primary care practices for collaborative care, according to experts.

“A number of studies have shown that trying to train primary care doctors in mental health and substance abuse treatment does not change outcomes, so I would hope we don’t waste money on doing that,” said Henry Harbin, MD , a psychiatrist and senior health care policy analyst for the Kennedy Forum, while speaking as a panelist in a National Institute of Health Care Management Foundation webinar about mental health care service gaps.

Instead, the most evidence-based approach to caring for those with mental health needs is the collaborative care model, in which a person’s physical and mental needs are treated in one setting, said Dr. Harbin and his copanelists.

Between 2009 and 2013, the United States spent more on mental disorders than on any other health condition – about $200 billion, according to data published earlier this year. Heart conditions were second, at just under $150 billion.

When there is a comorbid mental illness, treatment costs more than double or triple for patients with a medical condition, according to Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration data . For example, the cost of treating a patient with diabetes alone is about $9,500. Adding a mental illness to the mix pushes treatment costs to just under $37,000 annually.

But data from research such as the Improving Mood: Promoting Access to Collaborative Treatment ( IMPACT ) study show that treating the whole person saves money. In that study, it was shown that $522 invested in collaborative care resulted in a net savings of $3,363 4 years later – about a $6.50 return on every $1 spent.

Components of collaborative care

In general, the components of collaborative care emphasize the use of measurement-based care tools. Those tools range from screening for various mental health conditions to systematic use of symptom rating scales, patient registries, and clinical decision-making algorithms. Applying these kinds of metrics-driven protocols can help curb the “clinical inertia, even in specialty care,” that can happen by relying on clinical judgment alone, said Glenda Wrenn, MD , an assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the Morehouse School of Medicine, Atlanta, and a webinar panelist.

“We’re actually really poor at detecting when our patients are going off track,” Dr. Wrenn said, citing a statistic that only about a fifth of patients whose symptom severity is increasing are detected by physicians who do not use measurement-based tools.

“That’s true for specialty providers who have the additional training, and so it’s especially true for those who do not have that kind of diagnostic training,” cautioned Dr. Wrenn, who is also the behavioral health director at the Satcher Health Leadership Institute at Morehouse.

The American Psychiatry Association also now offers training courses for psychiatrists interested in working with primary care practices. However, colocation of mental health specialists with primary care practices is not always necessary, according to John Fortney, PhD , director of population health at the Advancing Integrated Mental Health Solutions Center at the University of Washington, Seattle, and a webinar panelist. Once measurement-based tools are in place, “most first-line treatment of mental illnesses can be handled by the primary care physician without any help,” he said.

Dr. Fortney has conducted numerous studies of integrating behavioral health into primary care, including the use of telemedicine services. He advocates a stepwise approach to treatment once a patient’s needs are determined to be beyond the basic level of care.

An ad hoc consultation usually from an offsite mental health specialist would be the second step, Dr. Fortney noted, progressing as needed through an onsite intervention by a specialist, collaborative care with targeted treatment, and finally an outside referral to specialty care.

Legislative support

The pressure on the health care system to respond to the nation’s rampant rates of opioid abuse and overdose deaths coincides with a dramatic overhaul of regulations for how physicians who participate in Medicaid are measured and paid, along with recently proposed changes to the Physician Fee Schedule.

Together, these reforms call not only for more metric-based care, but, if finalized in their entirety, would create payment codes specifically for a collaborative, team-based approach to mental health care – including addiction treatment – through the use of coordinated services by primary care practitioners, behavioral health care managers, and psychiatric consultants.

Meanwhile, President Barack Obama recently signed into law a comprehensive package of opioid abuse–related reforms. Once finalized, the reforms will expand and support primary care’s use of medication-assisted therapies to combat opioid addiction and overdose, and extend prescribing privileges for buprenorphine and related therapies to practitioners and physician assistants. The new law also strengthens prescription drug monitoring and disposal programs.

In March, the American Board of Medical Specialties helped elevate addiction medicine’s clinical status with the announcement that it will recognize addiction medicine as a subspecialty, sponsored by the American Board of Preventive Medicine. Although no date has been announced for the first certification exam, the ABMS move was reinforced by a recent Obama administration regulatory change that nearly triples the number of patients addiction specialists can see annually.

Pressure is also mounting on primary care providers to play a more active role in reversing the highest suicide rates in 3 decades. Although the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force concluded in 2014 the evidence is insufficient enough to endorse screening for suicide risk, study data show that in the month prior to their death by suicide, nearly half of people had seen their primary care provider at least once.

Partly in response to these data, the federal Center for Integrated Health Solutions has created a resource center for suicide prevention in primary care.

Partnerships inevitable

In an environment where high care costs directly impact reimbursement, physicians and insurers alike are motivated to “aggressively” seek an integrated approach to care, according to webinar panelist Charles Gross, PhD, vice president for behavioral health in Anthem Blue Cross Blue Shield’s government affairs division.

“Doctors should be compensated for the hard work necessary to integrate care,” Dr. Gross said. “It’s not inexpensive. And also, they should be compensated for patient outcomes.”

Increasingly, provider membership contracts are tailored to a practice’s patient panel, the practice’s current level of integration, and its overall objectives, reinforced by metrics and the implementation of measurement-based care. Bundled care codes and other coding strategies are also being developed to support integrated care, according to Dr. Gross.

Whether it is through telemedicine, colocation, or developing referral networks, primary care physicians are in a position now where they must partner with mental health specialists.

“I don’t think more [training] on how to diagnose and treat mental health and substance abuse is going to be effective in primary care,” Dr. Gross cautioned. “That’s why we’ve really come down firmly on the side of the collaborative care model, based on the IMPACT study. That’s where we’re going.”

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