Greenwald Introduces Legislative Package to Improve Access to Mental Health Care in New Jersey

With the pandemic and ongoing social unrest exacerbating the mental health challenges many New Jersey residents already face, Assembly Majority Leader Louis Greenwald has introduced a legislative package to improve access to mental health care throughout the state. The five bills will help medical facilities integrate and coordinate mental health care into the usual services they provide patients.

The United Nations has stated that the COVID-19 pandemic “has the seeds of a major mental health crisis” while one July 2020 poll found that 53 percent of American adults reported their mental health was negatively impacted by coronavirus, up from 32 percent in March 2020.

“The challenges New Jerseyans have faced over the past year are unlike any most of us have encountered in our lifetimes,” said Majority Leader Greenwald (D-Camden, Burlington). “This sustained period of fear, uncertainty, instability, loss and pain will have lasting repercussions on the well-being of residents for years to come. Our health care systems must be prepared to care for not only the physical health, but the mental health of the people throughout our state.”

Three of the measures would establish several pilot programs to help determine the feasibility expanding mental health care through various initiatives.

One such pilot program would link hospitals with Regional Health Hubs, who will help connect emergency department patients with critical behavioral health care treatment/support services. This would apply to patients who come into the hospital with mild-to-moderate mental health issues, emotional disturbances and substance use disorders but do not meet the criteria for inpatient hospitalization.

Two additional pilot programs would be established under another bill – one to introduce behavioral care at urgent care facilities to help stabilize patients experiencing mental health crises, and another to establish 24/7 crisis centers in up to five counties that would provide services and referrals to people seeking treatment for their substance use disorder.

Some of the biggest barriers to mental health care are a lack of access and a lack of understanding about how to access it. One 2018 study found that 38 percent of Americans have had to wait longer than one week for mental health treatments, while nearly half of Americans know someone who has had to drive more than an hour roundtrip to seek treatment. Of those who need but do not seek treatment, many do so because of a lack of information about where to go for help.

One of the pilot programs introduced in the package – the Regional Community Behavioral Health Pilot Program – would involve Medicaid managed care organizations giving patients with severe mental illnesses access to a behavioral health assessment. Once participating patients’ needs are determined, the program would help them navigate New Jersey’s behavioral health care system through a coordinated support system to ensure they receive the care they require.

“Finding ways to integrate mental health care with the medical services providers currently offer will greatly increase patients’ access to this critical assistance,” said Greenwald. “That’s what this legislative package aims to do – provide financial support, guidance and incentives for medical providers to improve and expand mental health care services. Doing this will benefit the mental health of residents at a time New Jerseyans need it the most.”

The remaining bills both aim to make it easier for community health centers to offer integrated care. One piece of legislation would set up a zero-interest loan program to help these centers afford the cost of initial changes to staffing and infrastructure so that the providers can incorporate behavioral health services. The other measure would require the Department of Health and Department of Human Services to publish an easy, step-by-step guide to help community health centers navigate the complex process of getting licensed to provide integrated care.

Each of the five bills have been referred to the Assembly Health Committee and await further action.