Although the federal government is funding a huge effort to build a national network of interoperable patient health records by 2014, advocacy groups are worried that unless significant changes are made to existing laws, behavioral healthcare providers may be left behind.
Community behavioral health organizations may apply for a portion of the $2 billion in grant funding in the ARRA HITECH Act. But they are not among the groups eligible to receive part of the $20 billion in Medicare and Medicaid incentive funding that the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services will make available starting in 2011 for showing “meaningful use” of electronic health records.
Behavioral health advocates and software vendors focused on the market are now lobbying Congress to amend the law. “This is an issue of incredible importance to our members,” said Alexa Eggleston, director of public policy for the National Council for Community Behavioral Healthcare (NCCBH).
“We are very concerned with how far behavioral health is already lagging behind in health IT adoption,” she added. (On average, total IT spending in behavioral healthcare represents approximately 1.8 percent of the total operating budget, compared to 3.5 percent in general healthcare.)
Eggleston said that larger health reform efforts would fall short if behavioral health issues are not adequately addressed. For instance, the economic costs of drug and alcohol abuse in the United States are estimated to exceed $275 billion a year, including lost productivity, medical expenses, crime and other costs.
“There are concerns that behavioral health is an afterthought,” she said. “The feds are eventually going to wake up and realize they can’t get this done without our providers, and they will have to go back and fix it later.”
Because the $2 billion in grant funding is being allocated among a number of initiatives, there may not be any significant money available for behavioral health providers, said Mike Morris, president of Anasazi Software Inc. and treasurer of the Software and Technology Vendors Association (SATVA).
“The impact of this issue is overlooked if we only consider it to be assistance in purchase of new EHR software,” he explained. The HITECH incentive, if available to community behavioral health organizations, would assist them in implementing e-prescribing with their current vendor or upgrading to new versions that were certified.
“It is very important that the entire behavioral health community work with NCCBH and their current SATVA software members to influence the legislation to include community behavioral healthcare organizations in the Medicare and Medicaid funding,” Morris said.
According to Eggleston, that’s exactly what NCCBH members are doing. They have been engaged in a letter-writing campaign to members of Congress. She states that many representatives who voted for the bill are surprised to learn that behavioral health is not included and seem willing to work to fix it. She adds: “We are optimistic that there will be a congressional effort to resolve this issue.”