A $7.7 million federal grant is being used to expand mental-health services in Montana and Wyoming where there is a severe shortage of psychiatrists and therapists.
A Sacramento-based company, HealthLinkNow, received the three-year grant last year from the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services Innovation Awards, a federal program designed to underwrite promising new models of health care delivery.
The company will partner with health care organizations in the region to provide mental-health and substance abuse services where geography and a lack of mental-health professionals impede access.
A Wyoming-based project manager was hired in December and has been traveling Montana's Hi-Line since February, visiting with clinics to promote the services. A Billings presence was established in February. To date, the leaders have met with at least 40 health care organizations and have signed formal agreements with several.
At Marias Healthcare Services in Shelby at least six patients, including an 11-year-old, have already taken advantage of the online network of mental-health professionals. A private exam room with secure videoconferencing has been set up at the clinic, where patients seek treatment for everything from a sore throat to gynecological exams.
“Our patients seem to be thrilled,” said Jamie Brownell, CEO of Marias Healthcare Services. Having a room set aside for mental-health counseling in the clinic eliminates the stigma associated with seeking mental health counseling. No one knows if a patient is at the clinic for mental health needs or any other health issue.
Through its agreement with HealthLinkNow, Marias has access to five psychiatrists, including a child psychiatrist, and two counselors.
“We are about connecting people to the right care when and where they need it,” said Barb Johnston, co-founder and CEO of the company.
The psychiatrists and therapists that HealthLinkNow uses must be licensed to practice in Montana and Wyoming, but could be located anywhere from Billings to Brazil. There are currently no psychiatrists or therapists in the network from Montana or Wyoming.
“There is great care in Montana. The providers here are very good,” said PJ Treide, project manager for Montana and Wyoming. “The problem is not with quality. It is with quantity and the lack of access given the rural and frontier nature of the state.”
In addition to Marias Healthcare Services in Shelby, Treide has signed formal agreements with Wyoming Interventional Pain Management in Gillette and Healthy Lifestyle Clinic in Sheridan, Wyo. They have agreements with Rosebud Community Health Center in Forsyth and pending agreements with others, including St. John’s Lutheran Ministries in Billings.
Kent Burgess, president and CEO of St. John’s Lutheran Ministries, said he has met with Treide and will sign the agreement to help manage clients’ behavior issues without having to admit them to the psychiatric center.
“It would give us access to psychiatric services we don’t have currently,” Burgess said. “A telepsychiatrist would be better than no psychiatrist.”
Both Montana and Wyoming consistently have the highest suicide rates in the nation. Montana has ranked in the top five states for more than three decades. As Montana looks for solutions to its suicide epidemic, Little said HealthLinkNow could be part of the answer.
“It certainly isn’t going to solve all the problems but it certainly is going to help,” said Nick Little, a liaison among the clinics, patients and company.
Access is key and technology has made it easier than ever, Treide added.
Matt Kuntz, executive director of the Montana chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, said there is no doubt the addition of HealthLinkNow is a good thing.
“The access to out-of-state psychiatrists combined with in-state primary care physicians will be a critical tool to address the state’s psychiatry shortage,” Kuntz said.
The maximum amount of time a patient will wait for one of the sessions is 10 days and the current wait time is two to three days. In the past, patients could wait anywhere from two weeks to three months or longer for an office visit with a psychiatrist. In some areas of the state, there is one psychiatrist serving a vast, multicounty area.
The company accepts Medicaid and Medicare. Depending on an individual’s health insurance coverage, the cost of a session could range from $95 to $250 per one-hour session.