As the number of cases of COVID-19 increase in Kentucky, so does the associated anxiety. The mental health effects of COVID-19 are as important to address as are the physical health effects. Just as individuals with pre-existing physical illness are more likely to get physically ill from the coronavirus, people whose mental health is compromised are at greater risk of experiencing worsening mental illness as a result of the coronavirus – no matter what their mental illness may be.
Behavioral health organizations around the commonwealth are meeting these challenges in innovative ways. We talked to Dana Royse, the chief financial officer at New Vista, a non-profit community mental health center serving central Kentucky, to hear how her team at New Vista is responding to the pandemic. Below are the highlights.
Medical News: From a care perspective, social distancing presents significant challenges to those in need of behavioral health services. How is New Vista working to address these concerns and continue to deliver care?
Dana Royse: Traditionally, behavioral health services have always been delivered in-person. For several years at New Vista, we’ve had the ability to provide office to office telehealth. Mid-year 2019 the ability to bill for telehealth services while the client is at home or some other location became available. Because of this, we had a lot of the infrastructure in place to move forward with this new telehealth service delivery, but practically all clients were still getting in-person services.
Once the COVID-19 pandemic presented in Kentucky, Governor Andy Beshear, was at the forefront of ensuring the commonwealth’s citizens were going to have Medicaid coverage as well as access to safe behavioral healthcare services.
Very quickly we received information from the Governor’s staff working in conjunction with the Kentucky Department of Medicaid Services and the Department of Behavioral Health, Developmental and Intellectual Disabilities that expanded behavioral health services could be provided via telehealth. This has given our clinical staff of psychiatrists, therapists, case managers and peer support specialists the ability to connect with their clients in a way that promotes safety for everyone.
We quickly adopted the operational changes and transitioned our workforce to working remotely while promoting continuity of care through a secure, HIPAA compliant telehealth platform. It has been a little like finishing out the interior of the plane while flying. We could perform all the technical pieces, but now we are learning how to make the client’s experience better. Overall, we have had an overwhelmingly positive response to our telehealth services.
MN: The COVID-19 crisis has dramatically altered the business community across the country. How has your organization changed or adjusted the way you are operating?
DR: We have become an organization that is heavy in remote workers. We had a solid technology infrastructure that allowed us to flip the switch from mostly in office staff to almost an entirely remote workforce. Without the strong technology infrastructure, the transition would not have been as successful.
On March 18, we began delivering telehealth services on a large scale. One month later, we have provided more than 4,000 instances of telehealth services to central Kentucky. New Vista has been able to support the community with little service disruption. I am confident that even when things return to “normal” there are segments of our operations that won’t return to the way they were before the COVID-19 crisis.
MN: What lessons has New Vista learned from this crisis and how will it change operations going forward?
DR: Communication, while always important, it is extremely important in time of crisis. Several months ago, we would not have predicted a disruptor such as this. It had been unbelievable to see how the traditional challenges of this large nonprofit organization paled in comparison to the initial days of COVID-19.
We must be resilient and focus on the stamina it takes to run the rest of the race. There is still much to do, but at New Vista our employees are committed to serving clients and we are committed to our workforce. We know there is much uncertainty ahead, but one thing we are certain of is our unwavering commitment to serve our clients when they are counting on us the most.
MN: What innovations are you seeing that may have positive impact on the behavioral healthcare sector?
DR: While we have only been providing telehealth on a broad scale for a short time, we have found that clients have a better therapy experience when they get to participate in their own environment. The behavioral health community has struggled for years in breaking the stigma associated with accessing mental health and substance use services. The delivery of services via telehealth goes a long way in breaking these barriers.
If this crisis has shown us anything, it is how much we all should be paying attention to our mental health. It is important for us to be in a good place so that we can be there for others who depend on us.