The staff of Clinica Sierra Vista, which has health centers throughout the Central Valley, screened its mostly low-income patients last year for mental health needs and determined that nearly 30 percent suffered from depression, anxiety or alcoholism.
Christopher Reilly, Sierra Vista’s chief of behavioral health services, said he was concerned about the high percentage of patients afflicted, but even more so about the clinic’s ability to treat them.
That’s in part because at health centers like Clinica Sierra Vista, a large group of mental health providers are excluded from reimbursement by Medi-Cal, the government program for low-income Californians. But that will soon change. Gov. Jerry Brown last week signed a law allowing federally funded health centers and rural clinics to bill Medi-Cal for the services of licensed marriage and family therapists.
“I am ecstatic that this passed,” Reilly said. “It means a lot more people are going to get attention for their behavioral health needs a lot earlier.”
The new law, which takes effect Jan. 1, is designed to address gaps in mental health care, particularly in rural areas where recruiting and retaining behavioral health providers is a challenge. Under the current law, clinics hire licensed clinical social workers and psychologists for their Medi-Cal patients, but they often can’t find enough to meet their needs. Many clinics don’t provide behavioral health services at all.