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UCHealth Memorial Hospital Central.

Aurora-based UCHealth today announced a sweeping, $100 million initiative to combat the state’s mental health crisis.

A $25 million matching donation program could boost support to as much as $150 million, which will be used to embed mental health care professionals in primary care offices, build and expand tele-psychiatry and virtual care and ultimately complete a new inpatient behavioral health unit at the University of Colorado Hospital.

The move comes amid a yearlong project by The Gazette to highlight Colorado's lack of access to mental health care. The investigation showed that as many as 382,000 Colorado residents lack access to mental health care.

UCHealth's plans will be rolled out over the next five years, but patients should begin seeing changes at the local level over the next 18 months, as moves to integrate behavioral health care into the primary care and emergency room settings are expanded, said UCHealth CEO Elizabeth Concordia.

"What the patient should actually start seeing is licensed clinical social workers and psychologists working hand in hand with primary care physicians to have immediate resources to behavioral health, as opposed to going to their primary care physician and then being referred and trying to find a behavioral health resource," Concordia said. "We think it will significantly improve access for the residents in Colorado and specifically for Colorado Springs in those primary care practices."

The expansion of UCHealth's tele-care program, which allows patients to consult with behavioral health providers through a virtual connection, will help bring such services to rural areas that lie in the state's vast mental health care desert. Thirty-nine Colorado counties don't have a single practicing psychiatrist.

Tele-care in the ER can help both patients and the doctors tasked with treating a chronic issue in an crisis setting. 

"The integration into primary care is sort of a longer-term strategy that’s going to take some time and is the best way to manage this, but we realize that ... there are going to be people in crisis today, and tomorrow, and they will be showing up at our emergency room because there’s no other place else for them to go," said Chris Gessner, CEO Of Aurora's UCHealth hospital, where the top five emergency room diagnoses are all behavioral health related. "We are working in various parts of UCHealth to equip our emergency rooms to better take care of those patients by tele-support with behavioral health professionals as well as creating certain areas in the emergency department where we have behavioral health triage-type centers that can quickly access their problem and determine where they need to be seen next. Not all of those patients need to be admitted."

Gessner said an overarching goal of the initiative is to change not only the way people with behavioral health diagnoses access care in Colorado, but how patients, physicians and the general public think about wellness.

"In order for them to have optimal outcome and experience, we need to provide behavioral health in an integrated fashion with their medical care. A lot of times in this country, they think of those as silos. Medical care is one one side; behavioral health is on the other," Gessner said. "I think that’s just old fashioned thinking that needs to go away, and that’s what this effort is all about — sort of integrating those to achieve ultimate outcomes."

Dr. Neill Epperson, Chair of psychiatry at the University of Colorado School of Medicine, said she also hopes the multi-million dollar investment not only will help patients in Colorado access the care they need, but also help lure more students into mental health professions, including psychiatry. She also believes that it could advance mental health treatment efforts on a national scale, in ways that might be hard to imagine right now.

"There are a number of other states in a similar situation to us. I think we can really be a model for how a health system and an academic department can work together synergistically, to not only promote good patient care but to create new knowledge that will then further promote good patient care," said Epperson. "I think that’s another thing that’s really wonderful about it: Not only do we have the capacity to train the workforce, because we have an academic department, but we also have the capacity to add the research mission which I think will promote new knowledge, which can then be put back in to the system to improve our outcome. For everyone."

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