August 24, 2019

AuSable Valley Mental Health launches virtual health system

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MIO — The AuSable Valley Community Mental Health Authority launched its virtual health system Feb. 2 in hopes of making health care more available to uninsured Oscoda County residents with mental illness.

The launch followed AVCMHA receiving the Mental Health Block Grant from the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities Administration.

The virtual system provides care for residents who are 18 years or older, uninsured and have a serious mental illness or co-occurring disorder.

Diane Pelts, chief quality officer for AVCMHA, said no consumers have used the services from the clinic yet. However, she said the mental health authority has hired an outreach specialist to make contact with citizens, agencies and providers to change this.

“The grant is just for a certain population right now,” Pelts said.

Outreach Specialist Doug Davis said two clients have signed up, but neither has been through the program yet.

“I’ve (been) beating the pavement all last week and I’ll be doing it again until we get people,” he said. “It’s hard to target the consumer we’re looking for.”

Pelts said on the patient’s end, the virtual health system uses a computer’s camera and tools hooked up to its USB port. These tools work with the system’s existing software to transmit readings to nurse practitioners giving the examination. The program allows a patient to see data in real time as they’re being examined.

“It’s very transparent,” Pelts said. “Everything is right there.”

Pelts said all equipment is supplied to the patient for use. She said the system is compliant with the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 and is secure.

Davis went through the virtual health system and said it’s a lot like a normal check-up.

“They did a full physical right there with the equipment they have,” he said. “Technology-wise it’s quite amazing, but it’s also quite comfortable.”

County residents interested in the program would first need to be assessed by AVCMHA to be admitted. Once these patients use the virtual health system, the authority helps connect them with DHHS for Medicaid benefits, as well as food, housing and any other benefits they may need and qualify for. Cynthia Pushman, MDHHS director for Crawford, Oscoda and Otsego counties, said a goal of the partnership with the system is to make it easier for those who qualify to sign up for potential benefits.

“If they’re going to the clinic to have an appointment, we’re going to have somebody that’s able to go to the clinic,” Pushman said. “That way they don’t have to come to our office.”

Those who utilize the system may also get set up for a follow-up appointment with a nurse practitioner from Saginaw Valley State University.

The Michigan Mental Health Code defines a serious mental illness as a diagnosable mental, behavioral or emotional disorder existing for a year or more. The illness must meet the criteria set forth by the American Psychiatric Association in its most recent diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders and approved by the MDHHS. This illness must also interfere with day-to-day activities. For example, while dementia with delusions would be considered an SMI, other forms of dementia that do not occur in conjunction with a diagnosable SMI are not covered.

Psychology Today defines a co-occurring disorder as when two or more disorders are present at the same time. These were previously given dual diagnoses.

“For example, a person may suffer substance abuse as well as bipolar disorder,” the Psychology Today website states.

According to a report from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, 7.9 million adults in the United States suffer from one of these disorders.

The virtual health program is a partnership with the AVCMHA and District Health Department No. 2. It is also supported by the nurse practitioner program of Saginaw Valley State University, CHOICES (Creating Healthy Outcomes by Improving, Connecting and Empowering for Success) and hospitals in the area.

“Telemedicine seeks to improve a patient’s health by permitting two-way, real-time interactive communication between the patient and the physician or practitioner at the distant site,” the Medicaid website states. “This electronic communication means the use of interactive telecommunications equipment that includes, at a minimum, audio and video equipment.”

Oscoda County is one of the lowest-ranked counties in overall healthcare outcomes, according to County Health Rankings & Roadmaps. In 2016 Oscoda County ranked 67th out of 83 counties. This is a slight improvement from a ranking of 71st in the previous year.

Pelts said in rural areas like Oscoda County, access to health care can be difficult for many residents due to things like the distance of facilities and weather. One of the keys of the program is prevention of illness in addition to treatment.

“It just is so beneficial,” she said. “You can increase a person’s access to care and help them with their health and wellness goals, get them just the basic primary care as opposed to going to an emergency department or an urgent care.”

She said the program is hoping to keep going following the grant funding.

“The grant is just for the specialty population, but our hope is that we can sustain this after the grant period is done by opening it up to specialty providers,” she said.

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