Talk to mental health professionals and it’s clear many would like to see Oregon’s delivery of mental health care changed. Two bills now before the Oregon Legislature, Senate Bill 831 and Senate Bill 832, would do that and in the process would improve mental health care for Oregon Health Plan clients.

They should be approved.

Mental and physical health care are two largely separate systems. Family practitioners, orthopedic specialists and pediatricians work on one side of the health care block, while psychiatrists, psychologists and other mental health care providers work on the other. The two sides may or may not talk with one another on a regular basis. That split often means a person with mental health problems does not receive the care he or she needs.

The result, Robin Henderson, chief behavioral health care officer at St. Charles Health System, told the Senate Human Services and Early Childhood Committee on Tuesday, is that about 10 percent of patients referred to mental health providers actually see those providers.

The two measures would change that by integrating the two systems more fully than they are today.

Under SB 831, Oregon’s coordinated care organizations, including the Pacific Source CCO that operates in Central Oregon, would be required to hire or contract with mental health professionals. SB 832, meanwhile, would provide grants for integrating the two arms of medical care in a way that is not always done today. It would also bar CCOs from restricting patients’ access to mental health care.

The changes would, those testifying before the Senate committee this week said, mean better and earlier mental health care for those who need it. And that, in turn, could save the health care system money in the long run.

The two bills are in their infancy, and there will be revisions along the way. The Association of Oregon Community Mental Health Programs is concerned about mandates, grants and other aspects of the measures, and supporters will work with them to try to resolve their concerns.

But if receiving mental health care early is important to keeping Oregonians healthy, integration is likely to prove the best way to get there. The bills should be approved.

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