North Carolina DHHS Releases New Strategic Plan On Behavioral Health Services
In North Carolina, the opioid epidemic claims the lives of, on average, more than 3 people a day, and it shows little sign of slowing down. That’s just one of the issues that the state agency in charge of behavioral health is facing, which includes everything from substance abuse to mental health, developmental disabilities and more. The North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services recently released a 90-page strategic plan on how it aims to improve services in the state.
WFDD’s Bethany Chafin spoke with Deputy Secretary for Health Services Mark Benton about what went into the plan and what it says about behavioral health in North Carolina.
On gathering feedback for the report:
The planning and the input for the behavioral health plan was really about a year-long process. We held 6 community meetings or community forums around the state. We talked with countless numbers of stakeholders...and some of the key pieces of feedback that we got consistently through all of those different venues were concerns around the timeliness and the affordability of behavioral healthcare, and that sort of addressed a number of subpoints. One [was] about whether we have an adequate behavioral health workforce and are we providing an adequate amount of services? And then generally, the ability for folks to be able to access those services - those with insurance and those without insurance. There was also another key theme that addressed the need to treat the entire person, the whole person. We refer to that as integrating both behavioral health and physical health. And then lastly were just general observations around the need to sort of improve the quality of behavioral health care that's provided across our state. So those were sort of the three main buckets of feedback that we've received in this year-long process.
On the challenges facing North Carolina's behavioral health system:
The major challenges come back to lack of funding and access to health insurance. We still have a large segment of our population that are working, are perhaps individuals with no children and have no means of accessing healthcare. We know generally there's not enough money to cover the services that are needed. We also know that we still live in a day where there's a stigma associated with having a mental illness or a substance use diagnosis. And we also know one of the other challenges is that our current system is fragmented and this is sort of a lead back to the need to integrate behavioral health and physical health. And so right now the two systems are very much separate. And we believe that needs to be addressed going forward.
On how this addresses the opioid epidemic:
One of the things that we knew as we developed this plan was that we were also in the midst of a devastating opioid crisis...a big portion of that crisis points back to the fact that there are a lot of individuals who are suffering who do not have access to health coverage. And we also know that we have pockets in our state where we don't have enough behavioral health providers, particularly substance use counselors. And so part of [it is] our recognizing that we need to increase access to health care, that's both physical health and behavioral health. We also need to address the fact that we don't have an adequate workforce, and we need to be able to look and hopefully better leverage the use of telemedicine to be able to bring care into communities where people are suffering. And you know, I guess in other words, the opioid crisis is in some ways is sort of a reflection of the fact that we have much more work to do in improving our behavioral health system.