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No Margin No Mission: Sustainability in Behavioral Health – Primary Care Integration

Posted By Cheryl Holt, Thursday, May 31, 2012
Most posts on the CFHA Blog describe integration into primary care settings. Many of these services are provided through collaboration with the community behavioral health center. Or, in some communities the integration happens in reverse, by integrating primary care services into the existing community behavioral health center. This blog examines integrated care from the perspective of the community behavioral health center.


Of the many challenges in integrating primary care services into behavioral health organizations, the one that garners the most apprehension and concern is sustainability. It is also the most frequent reason for hesitation in moving forward. Healthcare is not set up to address this. Primary care and behavioral health have different billing codes with no easily decipherable means of venturing outside the confines to include payment for integrated services. The mere thought of the process required to begin to tear down the barriers separating the two worlds strikes fear in the hearts of the most courageous administrators.

Healthcare administrators are presented with conflicting demands and are struggling to reconcile the next step. They can:

  1. Ignore the ever increasing focus on healthcare integration and hope it is just another passing fad; or
  2. Place even more burden on the ever-shrinking budgets and hope for the best.

Let’s take a closer look at the options:

Ignoring healthcare integration seems like the easiest solution. Behavioral health administrators can align themselves with like-minded peers creating a support group who reinforces the notion that it will all just fade away if they merely wait it out. This group gets considerable pleasure in observing the early adopters from a distance, filled with certainty that these risk-takers are all making huge mistakes. They pat themselves on the back encouragingly as they watch their naïve peers make the occasional fumble, while attributing any successes they might have to sheer (unsustainable) luck.

Over-burdening the current budget seems to be irresponsible. Behavioral health administrators have been faced with budget cuts in unprecedented amounts over the past few years. While they have either become masters at doing more with less or have chosen to leave the field entirely, taking on a new business-line during the increasing uncertainty of their organizations’ financial states seems to be overly risky and counterintuitive.

Yet the pressure is on.

Nationally, more and more behavioral health conferences are featuring healthcare integration tracks. The same is becoming true of primary care conferences and conventions as well. With more and more research and reports being released that provide the necessary data to support the need for integration, it’s becoming more and more difficult to write it off as a passing fad. The recent report from the SAMHSA-sponsored, National Survey on Drug Use and Health, Physical Health Conditions among Adults with Mental Illnesses provides further evidence supporting earlier reports demonstrating the need for integration.

 The current model of providing behavioral healthcare may be on its way to becoming obsolete. Now is the time for behavioral healthcare administrators to begin the discussion of how to address the whole-health needs of the people they serve. Whether through collaborative partnership agreements or bi-directional integration with primary care organizations, or hiring primary care staff for expanding to fully integrated services, this issue can no longer be ignored. There are many changes that can be implemented right away (focusing on billing codes and maximizing billing opportunities) while others will require advocating changes at the state and federal level. (Click here for helpful billing tools created by the SAMHSA-HRSA Center for Integrated Health Solutions.) Daunting though this may seem, the climate is right for these discussions with your state Medicaid and behavioral health offices. They are faced with the task of making the necessary changes to move into the new era of healthcare integration. Strategically, it’s far better to be a part of discussions on creating this new structure than to have it imposed on your organizations. The Georgia Association of Community Services Boards has partnered with the Carter Center to create a forum for change in Georgia via their Integrative Healthcare Learning Collaborative. Not only have they included the public behavioral health providers and their primary care partners, they also have representation from the Georgia Primary Care Association and area medical schools. They recognize that in order to develop sustainable programs everyone must be at the table.

Let’s not lose sight of the goal: we must work together to make a difference in improving health outcomes of the people we serve. We CAN ensure that the margin is there to continue the mission. Be a part of the solution!

What are your strategies for sustaining healthcare integration?
I'd love to hear from you. Please enter your comments/suggestions/ideas below or email:


Cheryl Holt

Cheryl Holt, MA, NCP, BCCP currently serves as the Director of Training and Technical Assistance with SAMHSA-HRSA Center for Integrated Health Solutions for the National Council for Community Behavioral Healthcare. She is moderator of the Behavioral Health – Primary Care Integration Listserv, manages the Behavioral Health Integration blog, and is active in social media: Twitter, @cherylholt and @BHPCIntegration; and Facebook, Behavioral Health Integration

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