The New Role of Virtual Care In Behavioral Healthcare

August 12, 2022

Behavioral health care is profoundly intimate. Providers engage in up-close, deeply personal dialogues with their clients to create trust and build a partnership around individual goals and milestones.

That is one reason why the notion of supplementing (or even replacing) in-person client interactions with virtual care has been slow to take root in behavioral health settings. Other major factors, most notably state and federal regulatory roadblocks that made offering virtual care physically and financially unworkable in most cases, also slowed its deployment.

The advent of COVID-19, with its shelter-in-place orders and abrupt in-person business cessation, changed everything.

As the pandemic raced across communities nationwide, federal agencies like the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) quickly adapted or temporarily waived long-standing regulations in order to foster adoption of virtual services. The vast majority of states followed suit, issuing waivers to in-state licensure requirements for physical care and telemedicine. These rules were similarly relaxed for behavioral health and human services providers, allowing for expanded telehealth services to be set up and, in some cases, at better reimbursement rates than were previously offered. Within less than a month, remote behavioral health care became a viable option.

Behavioral health providers responded immediately. In many cases, they created new systems, processes, staff training and short-term workarounds in a matter of days. They have been able to continue care and remain engaged and supportive of their clients during a period of extreme stress, anxiety and trauma. And in the ensuing months, have been working to integrate their newly deployed telehealth operations into their overall service structure.

Qualifacts and the National Council for Mental Wellbeing recently surveyed a nationwide group of more than 1,000 behavioral health executives and staff on the topic of virtual care. Survey respondents shared their insights on the challenges around virtual care, as well as their hopes for its continued use in the coming months and years. One thing that behavioral-health providers have made quite clear is that while the future state of care delivery is an ever-evolving landscape, their commitment to serve the needs of their communities remains as steadfast as ever.