Challenges and opportunities in supporting children’s behavioral health needs

We’ve seen a significant decline in children receiving primary care and behavioral health services during the pandemic. In fact, 25% of children have missed, delayed or skipped a preventive appointment in the past 12 months.1 Combined with a lack of access to in-person schooling and peer connection, this has left many children facing behavioral health challenges with minimal support. 

Childhood and adolescence are pivotal developmental years. With fewer children receiving care, we have seen a decrease in referrals to needed interventions, which could cascade into long-term impacts on children’s physical and behavioral health. As children and youth return to in-person schooling and receive needed preventative visits, there is an opportunity to swiftly identify issues and concerns that have emerged in order to quickly intervene, reset course through treatment, and ultimately prevent evolution of negative impacts to development, learning and function.

Focusing on health equity and trauma-informed care

The pandemic created job insecurity and economic fallout for many families. This combination of parental and societal stress has impacted children, as well. Children in Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC) families have also been more likely to lose a family member to COVID-19, and growing racial tension and inequities highlighted since the beginning of the pandemic have contributed to children’s trauma.

UnitedHealthcare Community & State focuses on trauma-informed care and providing behavioral health services to vulnerable communities. By providing care that considers trauma created by health disparities, racial inequities and COVID-19, we can help children address behavioral health challenges and improve health outcomes.

The unique role of managed care on children’s behavioral health

As a result of COVID-19, we've seen an impact on children’s abilities to access community resources, including after-school programs.  Children and adolescents receive support from adults and their peers in these settings, which often aids in the identification of educational, health and social needs. Without easy access to school counselors, nurses and friends,  young individuals lost an important outlet for voicing and processing challenges.

As we look to recover from the pandemic, managed care organizations (MCOs) are uniquely positioned to address behavioral health care gaps for children and adolescents in the near term, including:

  1. Partnering with primary and behavioral health providers to support children’s care and positively impact children’s health outcomes.
  2. Supporting capacity building for telehealth to improve and augment access to primary care and behavioral health services.
  3. Partnering with school-based health centers to enhance medical and behavioral integration resources in school-based settings.
  4. Supporting community-based organizations as they provide and enhance trauma-informed care and activities for children and youth. 

MCOs are also uniquely positioned to expand capacity long term, including:

  1. Optimizing clinical practices and enhancing network capacity for medical and behavioral integration. This includes building outreach capacity (e.g., telehealth, etc.) to improve care access.
  2. Requiring the health care workforce to approach care with cultural sensitivity, relevance and consideration of trauma, inclusive of racial trauma.
  3. Continuing to advocate for public policies that support medical and behavioral care integration, specifically for adolescents and children.
  4. Supporting data access and technology infrastructure. This goes beyond sharing data in a clinical setting and opens the door to integrate with schools and other systems to effectively meet the needs of young populations. By improving data sharing across all points of contact in a child’s life, we can gather a full picture of needs and create tailored interventions.Learn more at our upcoming panel at the MHPA Annual Conference

Taking action to improve children’s health outcomes

One way UnitedHealthcare Community & State is supporting access to behavioral health services to improve children's access to care is through our Federally Qualified Health Centers (FQHC) Transformation Investments Program. We implemented this program at the beginning of the pandemic to offer FQHCs funding to improve children’s health outcomes. The program also offered FQHCs the option of utilizing funding to expand their telehealth capacity, improving child and adolescent access to medical care and behavioral health services.

We also know that schools and community youth programs provide a reliable, safe outlet for children to process their emotions and develop healthy emotional and behavioral habits. These settings also help facilitate access to health services, when identified. UnitedHealthcare Community & State understands the unique role of educators, schools and community programs, and we are looking for more ways to partner with these stakeholders to bridge care access gaps. 

Learn more at our upcoming panel at the MHPA Annual Conference

We’ll be exploring additional challenges and opportunities to improve children’s behavioral health during our Medicaid Health Plans of America Conference panel on Thursday, September 23, at 2:30 p.m. During this panel, we’ll be joining other Medicaid leaders to discuss best practices for addressing the behavioral needs of our youngest members, and strategic ways to fill gaps in care to improve health outcomes.

Read more from Dr. Kirk and Nicole Truhe

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