Ben Middleton column

Ben Middleton

Thousands of Tennesseans are in a mental health care gap – which means they have barriers such as cost and coverage to access services they want and need. I have dedicated 30 years to provide mental health services and alcohol and substance use treatment, and I have seen the negative impacts of that gap in care too often. 

There is a diverse population that has had challenges accessing mental health care. Perhaps they do not qualify for TennCare or Veterans Affairs benefits or cannot afford commercial insurance coverage. Maybe there are no grant funds that match their particular need, or they only have a care plan where mental health services are very limited, tied to a high deductible or are not included at all. 

However, in a hopeful new development, state lawmakers have widened the Behavioral Health Safety Net of Tennessee. Income eligibility for these services has expanded from 100 percent up to 138 percent of the federal poverty level, while the required age lowered from 19 to 18. I am excited and grateful for this positive step – it means our officials have heard the health community’s concerns, and now more people will get help. 

For qualifying Tennessee residents, BHSN of TN services are accessed through a community behavioral health provider and may include mental health assessment, evaluation, diagnosis, therapeutic intervention, case management, transportation, peer support services, psychosocial rehabilitation, psychiatric medication medicine, pharmacy assistance and general care coordination.

Last year at Centerstone, my colleagues provided much-needed care to nearly 6,000 adults through the Behavioral Health Safety Net, helping people address issues like anxiety and mood disorders, substance use and relationship problems. 

One example is Claudia who did not have insurance and qualified for Safety Net funds. My colleagues provided mental health care services, arranged transportation to and from appointments and coordinated care with her dialysis clinic, ensuring communication across all her health providers. After all, mental and physical health go hand in hand, and enhanced coordination leads to better outcomes.

When needed, BHSN of TN enables community mental health providers to visit an individual’s home and help them navigate other social services they may require, such as food stamps, job searches and connection to other local supports. In Claudia’s case, Centerstone was ultimately able to help her receive TennCare benefits and pass along a donated heater that will help to keep her warm this winter.

State leaders have taken encouraging steps to expand accessibility to mental health care services, removing some of the previous barriers. There are resources to help individuals receive care that will change their lives. For more information, visit tn.gov/behavioral-health/safety-net.

Ben Middleton is chief operating officer in Tennessee for Centerstone, a nonprofit health care organization dedicated to deliver care that changes people’s lives.

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