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Your Healthy Family: UCHealth integrating mental health care into primary care clinics

Posted at 11:18 AM, Oct 21, 2020
and last updated 2020-10-21 13:18:28-04

Behavioral health experts are now working hand-in-hand with primary care physicians at about 30 UCHealth primary care clinics across Colorado, providing crucial resources to patients experiencing anxiety, depression or other challenges. The addition of these services is part of a commitment UCHealth made a year ago to invest at least $100 million into behavioral health services.

“Our model is to increase access to these needed services while reducing stigma,” said Elicia Bunch, vice president of behavioral health for UCHealth. “Both lack of access and stigma have served as barriers to care throughout our state, and by integrating therapists into the primary care setting, we are normalizing these services for patients. Now when patients go to their primary care clinic, they are able to get their physical and emotional needs met in the same setting. We are treating the whole person in one location,” Bunch said.

UCHealth plans to integrate the specialists in most of its roughly 60 primary care clinics in the coming months to meet the growing demand for such services, which have been well-received by patients.

Dr. Gina Bamberger, medical director for UCHealth’s primary care clinics in southern Colorado, said she sees a sense of relief in patients when she tells them she can refer them to a specialist whose office is just down the hall.

“They don't have to worry about going to a whole new location. They don't have to worry about, ‘Is this going to be covered by my insurance?’ We also offer telehealth visits so they can do that from home if they prefer, too. But it's a huge sense of relief to have it right here in a place they're already familiar with,” said Bamberger, a physician at UCHealth Primary Care-Fontanero in Colorado Springs, which was among the first three UCHealth clinics to integrate a specialist.

Patients can be referred to a specialist for a wide range of reasons – from depression and anxiety to help for managing behavioral issues that impact their medical condition, such as stress management for high blood pressure, said Lynnay Carona, the licensed clinical social worker who works with Bamberger and other providers at the Fontanero clinic. “It's important to be able to access behavioral health within the primary care setting because it improves outcomes both for mental health as well as medical health for chronic diseases such as diabetes, hypertension and other conditions,” she said.

Carona said she also has spent a lot of time helping patients cope with the emotional stress of the COVID-19 pandemic and the current political climate. A Colorado Health Foundation poll [] released last month found half of Coloradans surveyed reported experiencing mental health strain because of the virus.

“In terms of increased stressors during the pandemic, I've noticed that people are having financial issues, employment concerns and scares, loss of employment, increased family conflict because everyone's in the same space for an increased amount of time,” Carona said. “All of those things are coalescing into what sometimes can be a crisis. I would say that COVID has been present in some form or other with every patient. Everyone's feeling the strain. That may not be why they're seeing me specifically, but it's a part of the bigger picture of stress.”

Carona said now more than ever is the time to practice self-care, which is any activity that brings joy. “It's very individualized,” Carona said. “It doesn't have to be complicated or fancy. It can be something as simple as painting your nails, taking your dog for a walk, coloring a color page with your kid - any of those things, the things that make you feel good.”

“Self-care can also include talking to someone, talking to a professional. It doesn't mean that there has to be something ‘wrong with you.’ It could be that you have some stressors or some problems that you want to get a third-party perspective from that's not intimately involved in your life and may have motivations one way or another.”

More on UCHealth’s behavioral health/primary care services:

· How can I get help with behavioral health care?

If you are already a patient at a primary care practice that also has a behavioral health therapist, you can seek a referral from your primary care provider to see the expert. A list of primary care clinics currently offering behavioral health services, which are available to existing patients, can be found here. []

· Does insurance cover behavioral health visits?

Patients will want to check on their insurance plan specifics, but visits should be covered just like any other primary care visit because of UCHealth’s integrated focus on this care.

· Will UCHealth continue to add behavioral health experts?

Yes. Throughout the rest of 2020 and into 2021, UCHealth will continue to add behavioral health experts to primary care clinics.

· What do I do if I need help immediately?

If you are experiencing a mental health crisis, please call 911 or go to your local emergency room. Colorado Crisis Services also offers 24-7-365 support for mental health crisis by calling 844-493-TALK (8255) or by texting TALK to 38255.

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