Health care industry needs unified integrated facility license for best treatment of mental health, substance abuse issues

Health care providers are working hard every day to address an epidemic — the dramatic rise in mental health issues and substance use disorders worldwide. The World Health Organization said the number of people affected by both issues has risen 13% in the last couple of years alone.

At Bergen New Bridge Medical Center, when a patient comes to us with a mental health condition or for treatment of a substance use disorder, they are often dealing with other issues, perhaps medical ones that need to also be treated.  Integrated care is essential in treating the whole person, not just one of the issues they are facing.

Studies show that integrated care provides patients with increased access, improved health outcomes, as well as countering the stigma that so often surrounds both addiction and mental health services. The time is now for New Jersey to establish an integrated facility license that enables providers to offer medical and behavioral health services together. The current system requires providers to deal with multiple departments in Trenton, which results in numerous inspections on different schedules, and a lack of consistent information on standards of care.

We are not providing our patients with the highest level of care if the licensing system is in conflict and frankly has too many chefs in the kitchen. Patients deserve care that is essentially seamless, where all their pressing needs are addressed by licensed professionals in one compassionate setting. While I appreciate that there have been some steps taken to address this situation, the biggest obstacles to providing integrated care remain.

The ball is now firmly in the New Jersey Department of Health’s court. It must create proposed regulations that would support an integrated care facility license that allows for behavioral and medical services to be provided in the same venue. The reality is that these regulations are technically required under current state law.

I am the proud CEO of the largest hospital in the state, and I have seen firsthand the incredible demand we are facing to provide addiction and mental health treatment to all who need it. I am not alone in this; my colleagues at other health care organizations around the state and around the country are facing this overwhelming need in all the communities we serve.

This is not a simple issue, and I recognize that it is complex, but New Jersey has been talking about an integrated care license for the last seven years. For the benefit of the public’s health and to ensure that everyone who needs treatment receives it, these regulations supporting one license must move forward immediately.

It is simply a fact that the current licensing system has led to disparities in diagnosis, treatment and outcomes because of a lack of coordination between health care and behavioral health units even within the same facility. Studies have shown that, when these units are integrated, clinical outcomes as well as patient engagement and satisfaction improve. Treatment teams under one license would be focused on holistic care of their patients by collaborating seamlessly. In this model, the entire team can share electronic medical records to coordinate care better and engage with community partners to address social determinants of health that may interfere with a patient’s recovery.

As I and my colleagues acknowledged when signing onto the New Jersey Health Care Quality Institute’s letter seeking one license, integrated care is the gold standard. Our patients deserve nothing less than the best.

Deborah Visconi is the CEO and president of Bergen New Bridge Medical Center.