Increasing Access to Mental and Behavioral Health

  • November 8, 2019
Dr. Doriane Miller, Associate Professor Of Medicine At The University Of Chicago And Director Of The Center For Community Health And Vitality At UChicagoMedicine

Every year, we host the Change for Good Luncheon, Healthy Schools Campaign’s (HSC) annual event to bring focus to our work to make schools healthier places for all children and highlight new initiatives. This year we focused on lifting up the voices and experiences of parents and community leaders and invited public officials to hear and respond to their recommendations. This year, an audience of nearly 200 parents, community members and leaders from our civic, business, health and education communities heard a panel of grassroots leaders speak about their work in school health services, physical education, green schoolyards, school food and accountability. We invited public officials to listen and respond to those priorities. This series of blogs lays out those priorities and responses and highlights our policy recommendations to the recently elected Illinois Governor J.B. Pritzker and Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot.

Serious mental health problems among students are on the rise, but 60 percent of students do not receive the treatment they need.

“Why is that,” asked Dr. Doriane Miller, Associate Professor of Medicine at the University of Chicago and Director of the Center for Community Health and Vitality at UChicagoMedicine, at this year’s Change for Good Luncheon.

“One might speculate that there might be stigmas attached to the receipt of mental health services,” she said. “Actually, there is a lack of access to services.” Nearly 80 percent of Chicago Public Schools (CPS) students are enrolled in Medicaid, and it is extremely difficult to find providers who will accept Medicaid for mental and behavioral health services, Dr. Miller said. “Enhancement of these services in the mental and behavioral health area would fill an essential gap in services in a way that provides students with timely, integrated care,” she said.

Increasing access to school health services is a critical strategy to reach vulnerable children and support improved student health and academic achievement. Today, one in four children has a health issue that affects their ability to succeed in the classroom. This is double the number just 30 years ago. Because many of the health issues that affect learning disproportionately impact low-income students of color, any serious effort to address education equity must also address health equity.

A few years ago, we learned that Medicaid did not allow schools to get reimbursed for most of the services they delivered to Medicaid enrolled students. As a result, districts’ already scarce education dollars were being stretched to help provide health services. “And, they weren’t coming close to meeting the needs of all their students,” said Rochelle Davis, HSC President + CEO. “We took on this issue at the national level and successfully advocated for this policy to change—now schools are recognized Medicaid providers and able to bill for all eligible services provided to Medicaid enrolled students.”

However, in order for schools to access these federal healthcare dollars, states must formally seek approval from Medicaid, and we are helping states do just that. In the six states that have already successfully petitioned for this change, schools can now pay for additional school nurses, counselors and social workers. And better yet, more students have access to crucial medical services.

We hope that by next year we will be able to count Illinois as one of the states that have made this important change. This will have an immense positive impact for CPS alone, which serves approximately 235,000 Medicaid enrolled students.

At the Luncheon, we also heard from Dr. Allison Arwady, the Acting Commissioner of the Chicago Department of Public Health (CDPH). Dr. Arwady shared the department would soon announce new initiatives supporting mental and behavioral health. “We’re also thinking about how to expand and improve on the work that is already happening,” she said. CDPH already works in partnership with CPS to provide immunizations, dental care and vision care.

We look forward to continuing the conversation around increasing access to student health services—especially mental and behavioral health—with public officials, service providers, grassroots leaders and school districts across Illinois to ensure that all students have access to the healthcare they need in order to be present and ready to succeed in school.