– A group of Senators is calling for increased funding for children’s behavioral health services, including telehealth programs, to meet the stresses caused by the coronavirus pandemic.
In a letter to Congressional leadership last week, the Senators asked for more than $200 million to be added to the next COVID-19 relief package, to fund several connected health programs and other efforts to help children at home.
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“Increasing funding for telehealth capacity and community-based care models can help accelerate children’s access to care they need right now,” the Senators wrote. “Telehealth is the mechanism for delivering most services via video and/or audio devices while virus mitigation efforts are in effect, and will likely remain so until providers and the public are confident that risk of virus transmission is minimal.”
The Senators pointed out that children are faced with new and unexpected challenges while schools are closed and they’re isolated at home with family. Because of the ongoing pandemic, they’re separated from friends and other social activities and struggling to comprehend what is happening.
“Improved use of telehealth will increase points of access and continuity for each child and family, allowing for the stronger familiarity, relationships, and trust necessary to achieve better outcomes,” they added. “Increased investment will also enable behavioral health professionals and providers to operate more effectively and be more accessible to match needs with care. Both community and school-based telehealth care models are recommended to address mental health and substance abuse concerns. Recent school closures have prompted a need to increase school-based telehealth services for access in all communities.”
With Congressional debate on the next care package, titled the HEROES Act, moving slowly, lawmakers have been calling attention to the need to support more connected health efforts in the legislation.
Last month, more than 30 House members asked that emergency regulations enacted during the pandemic to encourage telehealth expansion be kept in place “for a reasonable transition period following the COVID-19 emergency period to collect appropriate data to provide an adequate amount of time to determine which of those flexibilities should be continued permanently.”
In addition, several lawmakers are lobbying to carve $2 billion out of the relief bill to support broadband expansion in rural areas to expand telehealth services, and another group is asking that the bill include Medicare coverage for audiology services provided to seniors via telehealth. Separately but along the same lines, hospice care providers are lobbying the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services to extend coverage for telehealth services beyond the pandemic.
In last week’s letter, the group of Senators is calling for additional funding for programs run by the Department of Education, Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) and Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA).
Their request includes $20 million for the Telehealth Network Grant Program, to expand school- and community-based telehealth networks and training, as well as various amounts for the National Child Traumatic Stress Network (NTCSN), the Children and Families Circles of Care Programs serving American Indian and Alaska Native communities, Project AWARE and the Graduate Psychology Education Program.
More funding would be directed toward Garrett Lee Smith Youth Suicide Prevention grants, pediatric mental healthcare access grants, student support and academic enrichment grants, and substance abuse prevention and mental health grants through children and family programs of regional and national significance.
The letter was signed by US Senators Robert Casey Jr. (D-PA), Chris Murphy (D-CT), Brian Schatz (D-HI), Chris Van Hollen (D-MD), Jacky Rosen (D-NV), Debbie Stabenow (D-MI), Maggie Hassan (D-NH), Kamala Harris (D-CA), Catherine Cortez Masto (D-NV), Chris Coons (D-DE), Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), Jack Reed (D-RI), Tom Carper (D-DE), Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), Tina Smith (D-MN), Edward Markey (D-MA), Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), Ron Wyden (D-OR), Tammy Baldwin (D-WI), Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) and Michael Bennet (D-CO).
The effort isn’t without precedent. In the fall of 2019, more than 60 schools in Florida’s Panhandle region were equipped with telehealth stations to help returning students who’d been affected by Hurricane Michael. And several states have moved to expand telemental health services in schools to address the growing numbers of students needing access to therapy and prevent school violence.