Amid national concerns that the seriously mentally ill are dying from preventable diseases, a leading Kansas healthcare philanthropy is about to make a down payment on a multi-year initiative aimed at integrating physical and mental health services for safety-net patients.
Within the next couple weeks, the Sunflower Foundation expects to open a competitive grant program that Chief Executive Billie Hall said likely would provide more than $1 million in funds to selected health providers focusing on integrated patient care. Foundation officials expect to award the grants by March.
“When we made the decision to get into this particular area,” Hall said, “we knew it would be a long horizon. We know we are in for five, maybe 10 years, depending on how things go in our state.”
The foundation’s board chose the initiative as a major priority about 18 months ago.
To date, Hall said, the foundation has spent about $50,000 sending some providers from different Kansas clinics to visit Cherokee Health Systems in Tennessee, which has 43 clinical sites in that state and a history of melding medical and mental health services.
Integration can mean having mental health and primary medical care agencies housed in the same building, said Melody Martin, a program officer with the foundation. But that is not the only way to do it, she said.
For instance, community health centers in Lawrence and Newton now have social workers or behavioral health specialists who work alongside the clinics’ medical teams.
At Heartland Community Health Center in Lawrence, behavioral health specialist Karin Denes-Collar technically is employed by Bert Nash Community Mental Health Center, which is located several blocks to the west of the clinic. But her office is at Heartland, where she consults daily with the medical staff about the conditions of various patients.
For example, she said, a patient with diabetes might also suffer depression in ways that could hinder the treatments for the underlying medical conditions. A homeless man with a chronic physical malady likely also struggles with a range of other problems that compound the illness. Assistance with those problems might best come from a social worker.
Reconnecting kinds of care
Area providers and national experts alike say that better coordination of care is essential to proper treatment for the mentally ill.
In an April 2009 paper, the National Council for Community Behavioral Healthcare said that persons with serious mental illness were dying 25 years earlier than the rest of the population largely because treatable conditions — such as diabetes and cardiovascular disease — had gone unmanaged.
“The bottom line is that the mind and body are connected,” said Tim DeWeese, director of clinical services at the Johnson County Mental Health Center in Mission. “And so the more physically healthy you are, the more mentally healthy you are going to be and vice versa. I think it’s really just reconnecting the two things. I don’t know where we got off base.”
The Sunflower Foundation is building upon a pilot project started two years ago by a subsidiary of the Association of Community Mental Health Centers of Kansas in collaboration with the Kansas Association for the Medically Underserved (KAMU)
Providers from nearly a dozen communities, including Heartland in Lawrence, were part of the pilot, said Connie Hubbell, director of governmental affairs at KAMU. The participants collected data for about a year starting in early 2011.
Undertaken with little funding, Hubbell said the pilot yielded results that were encouraging nonetheless. For instance, data compiled on 81 patients indicated an 8 percent reduction in monthly expenses per patient.
“So we know it’s out there,” she said. “We know it can happen. The integrated model is cost effective, it does save money, and it’s much more appropriate for the patient.”
Integration in action
One of the biggest challenges, Hubbell said, is successfully melding the consultative atmosphere of mental health with the often-frenetic pace that goes with providing primary care in a safety-net clinic.