With HHS secretary visit, UCFS touts investments in mental and behavioral health
Norwich — United Community & Family Services is using a $719,767 federal grant to build a comprehensive care center with evening pediatric services adjacent to its Edward & Mary Lord Family Health Center in Norwich, a project that U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Xavier Becerra heard about Tuesday in a visit.
He and Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., sat down with UCFS leaders to highlight American Rescue Plan Act investments in community health centers, behavioral health and telehealth, including more than $4 million in ARPA funding that UCFS received last month.
President and CEO Jennifer Granger also noted that UCFS received $3.3 million in the first section of ARPA funding last year, which went toward community outreach, COVID-19 testing, and enhancements to electronic health records.
"I'm thrilled to see that you're so diversified. It's a blessing to see a caregiving organization that can treat virtually everything the family comes to you with," Becerra said, adding he's been to many community health centers that have no dental services or behavioral health services.
Becerra thinks that COVID-19 has helped a lot of community health centers figure out who they are, "because in that crisis moment, they either shined or they lost their way." He said HHS will do everything it can to invest more in community health centers.
Blumenthal said while there is more awareness in the community of such health centers, there needs to be the same awareness in Congress.
Granger said the comprehensive care center will involve integrated behavioral health and primary care, while there will also be an after-hours walk-in pediatric clinic. She hopes construction on the primary section will be complete by the end of the year.
The comprehensive care center ties into UCFS' move toward more integrated care and using a one-stop-shop approach. The vision, Granger said, is to reduce anxiety by creating an alternative to large medical settings.
She said UCFS hopes to serve 400 patients each year there and about 2,500 patients in the pediatric clinic, with the aim of reducing emergency department visits by having a place where kids can go after 5 p.m.
Granger said UCFS is hoping to launch pediatric after-hours services in October, and Chief Medical Officer Dr. Ramindra Walia is talking to local pediatricians to see if they'll work four hours a week.
It will be the same cost structure as other UCFS services, with services offered regardless of ability to pay and a sliding scale for families with incomes below 200% of the federal poverty level.
UCFS also has eight school-based health centers: five in Norwich, two in Waterford and one in Montville. Granger noted that even at schools without a center, Walia is in touch with nurses and social services staff.
Three clinicians who are in school-based clinics during the school year are at the Edward & Mary Lord Family Health Center for the summer, so kids can still see them.
Handling kids' trauma
Deberey Hinchey, vice president of behavioral health services, has seen an increase in calls to the mobile crisis unit, compared to earlier in the pandemic. But UCFS' school-based clinics are now full with clinicians, and the nonprofit is sending recovery coaches out into the community with its van.
Elizabeth LeGray, child and adolescent program manager for outpatient services, said UCFS is expanding its services for kids from birth to age 6, specifically those experiencing trauma, and is looking at using two different models: one focused on the relationship between caregiver and child, and one just helping to build caregiver skills. LeGray said UCFS is looking to have someone work with the medical team and provide different screenings.
The challenge is finding staff. There's already a shortage of nurses, and UCFS has the additional hurdle of struggling to be competitive with salaries as a federally qualified health center.
The value of telehealth
Walia noted that the organization went from being 100% in-person before the pandemic to doing telehealth to now trying to find a balance. Granger said telehealth is being expanded into remote home monitoring, such as for hypertension and diabetes.
Amy Weidner, lead nurse practitioner, said telehealth ensures patients aren't lost, considering UCFS serves a lot of people who lack access to transportation, and she has a lot of patients who are paraplegic, quadriplegic or homebound due to comorbidities.
Blumenthal added that telehealth is also effective for veterans, who may live far away from a Veterans Affairs health center.
Becerra said he hopes community health centers continue to give feedback on telehealth, so the government can extend whatever authority is needed.
Rep. Joe Courtney, D-2nd District, had invited Becerra to UCFS but was unable to attend due to testing positive for COVID-19. Becerra also visited Planned Parenthood in Waterbury on Tuesday.