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Product Management Office: Benefits for WIC state agencies

By: Danni Ricks,

Erica is a Project Coordinator in BerryDunn’s State Government Practice Group. Based in Charleston, WV, she provides project coordination for a multi-state consortium of WIC agencies as well as other public health projects including Electronic Death Records System (EDRS) implementation and Health Disparities grant management. 

Erica Hoffman
01.12.22

Is your Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) agency struggling with Maintenance and Enhancement (M&E) vendor management? Here are some approaches to help improve your situation: 

  • Product Management Office (PdMO): Product management can help you manage your WIC system by coordinating and planning releases with the M&E vendor, prioritizing enhancements, reviewing workflows, and providing overall vendor management.
  • Project Management Office (PMO): Project management can help with budgeting, resource management, risk management, and organization. 
  • A blend of product and project management is a great partnership that can relieve some of the responsibilities of WIC agency staff and allows a third party to provide support in all areas of product and project management.

Whether you are an independent WIC State Agency (SA) or a multi-state consortium (MSC), having a PMO and/or PdMO can help alleviate some of the challenges facing WIC today. While an MSC may present significant cost savings, managing an M&E contract for multiple states can be overwhelming. Independent state agencies (SAs) may not have multiple states to coordinate with, but having the staff resources for vendor facilitation and implementing federal changes can be challenging. A PMO/PdMO can aid in improving business and technology outcomes for SAs and MSCs by bringing a level of coordination and consistency that otherwise might not happen. 

As federal changes grow in complexity, evidenced by the many changes to WIC stemming from the American Rescue Plan Act, coupled with workforce challenges in government, the importance of a PMO/PdMO has never been greater. Here are six ways a PMO/PdMO can help you:

  1. Facilitate the vendor relationship
    A PMO/PdMO not only holds the vendor accountable but also takes some of the workload off the SA by facilitating meetings, providing meeting notes, and tracking action items and decisions.
  2. Manage centrally located data
    A PMO/PdMO keeps all documents and data in a centralized location, fostering a collaborative environment and ease of access to needed information. A centralized location of data allows SAs to be on the same page for consistency, quality control, and to support the state’s need for clean, reliable information that is current and accurate.
  3. Track and mitigate risks 
    Effective risk management requires a substantial commitment of time and resources. The PMO/PdMO identifies, tracks, and assesses the severity of risks and suggests approaches to manage those risks. Some PMO/PdMOs assess all risks based on a severity index to help clients determine which risks need immediate action and which need monitoring.
  4.  Assist in the creation of Implementation Advanced Planning Document Updates (IAPDUs) 
    Creating and implementing an IAPDU can be time-consuming, confusing, and requires attention to detail. A PMO/PdMO alleviates time and pressure on SAs by helping to ensure that an IAPDU or funding request clearly outlines a plan of action to accomplish the activities necessary to reach an organization’s goal. PMO/PdMOs can draft IAPDUs to determine the need, feasibility, and projected costs and benefits for service. 
  5. Provide an unbiased, third-party opinion 
    A PMO/PdMO will offer an unbiased, third-party opinion to help avoid misunderstanding and frustration, decision stalemates, inadequate solutions, and unpleasant relationships between WIC agencies and M&E vendors. 
  6. Provide the right combination of business and technical expertise
    Staffing challenges (exacerbated by COVID-19), difficulties finding expertise managing software change management for WIC, and a retiring workforce knowledgeable in WIC system implementation have in some cases left SAs without critical resources. Having the right combination of skills from a third party can resolve some of these challenges.

Independent SAs or MSCs would benefit from having a PMO/PdMO to help meet the challenges WIC agencies face today, whether it is an unplanned funding change or updates to the risk codes. With the help of a PMO/PdMO developing standard practices and methodologies, SAs and MSCs can deliver and implement high-quality services more consistently and efficiently. The role of the PMO/PdMO is far-reaching and positively impacts WIC by providing backbone support for WIC’s overarching goal, to “safeguard the health of low-income women, infants, and children who are at nutrition risk.”

If you have questions about PMOs or PdMOs and the impact they can have on your agency, please contact us. We're here to help.

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What the C-Suite should know about CECL and change management

Read this if you are at a financial institution. 

Some institutions are managing CECL implementation as a significant enterprise project, while others have assigned it to just one or two people. While these approaches may yield technical compliance, leadership may find they fail to realize any strategic benefits. In this article, Dan Vogt, Principal in BerryDunn’s Management and IT Consulting Practice, and Susan Weber, Senior Manager and CECL expert in BerryDunn’s Financial Services Practice, outline key actions leaders can take now to ensure CECL adoption success.  

Call it empathy, or just the need to take a break from the tactical and check in on the human experience, but on a recent call, I paused the typical readiness questions to ask, “How’s the mood around CECL adoption – what’s it been like getting others in the organization involved?” The three-word reply was simple, but powerful: “Kicking and screaming.”  

Earlier this year, by a vote of 5-2, the FASB (Financial Accounting Standards Board) closed the door to any further delays to CECL adoption, citing an overarching need to unify the industry under one standard. FASB’s decision also mercifully ended the on-again off-again cycle that has characterized CECL preparation efforts since early 2020. One might think the decision would have resulted in relief. But with so much change in the world over the past few years, is it any wonder institutions are instead feeling change-saturated?  

Organizational change

CECL has been heralded as the most significant change to bank accounting ever, replacing 40+ years of accounting and regulatory oversight practices. But the new standard does much more than that. Implementing CECL has an effect on everything from executive and board strategic discussions to interdepartmental workflows, systems, and controls. The introduction of new methods, data elements, and financial assets has helped usher in new software, processes, and responsibilities that directly affect the work of many people in the organization. CECL isn’t just accounting—it’s organizational change. 

Change management

Change management best practices often focus on leading from optimism—typically leadership and an executive sponsor talk about opportunities and the business reasons for change. Some examples of what this might sound like as it relates to CECL might include, by converting to lifetime loss expectations, the institution will be better prepared to weather economic downturns; or, by evolving data and modeling precision, an institution’s understanding and measure of credit risk is enhanced, resulting in more strategic growth, pricing, and risk management. 

But leading from optimism is sometimes hard to do because it isn’t always motivating—especially when the change is mandated rather than chosen.  

Perhaps a more judiciously used tactic is to focus on the risk, or potential penalty, of not changing. In the case of CECL, examples might include, your external auditor not being able to sign-off on your financials (or significant delays in doing so), regulatory criticism, inefficient/ineffective processes, control issues, tired and frustrated staff. These examples expose the institution to all kinds of key risks: compliance, operational, strategic, and reputational, among them.

CECL success and change management

With so much riding on CECL implementation and adoption going well, some organizations may be at heightened risk simply because the effort is being compartmentalized—isolated within a department, or assigned to only one or two people. How effectively leadership connects CECL implementation with tenets of change management, how quickly they understand, then together embrace, promote, and facilitate the related changes affecting people and their work, may prove to be the key factor in achieving success beyond compliance.  

One important step leaders can take is to perform an impact assessment to understand who in the organization is being affected by the transition to CECL, and how. An example of this is below. Identifying the departments and functions that will need to be changed or updated with CECL adoption might expose critical overlaps and reveal important new or enhanced collaborations. Adding in the number of people represented by each group gives leaders insight into the extent of the impact across the institution. By better understanding how these different groups are affected, leaders can work together to more effectively prioritize, identify and remove roadblocks, and support peoples’ efforts longer term.           

 
No matter where your institution is currently in its CECL implementation journey, it is not too late to course-correct. Leadership—unified in priority, message, and understanding—can achieve the type of success that produces efficient sustainable practices, and increases employee resilience and engagement.

For more information, visit the CECL page on our website. If you would like specific answers to questions about your CECL implementation, please visit our Ask the Advisor page to submit your questions. For more tips on documenting your CECL adoption, stay tuned for our next article in the series, revisit past articles, or tune in to our CECL Radio podcast. You can also follow Susan Weber on LinkedIn.

Article
Implementing CECL: Kicking and screaming

Read this if you are at a state Medicaid agency.

The Covid-19 Public Health Emergency (PHE) placed US state and territory Medicaid programs on the front line of reorganizing what healthcare looks like for millions of Medicaid enrollees. Each Medicaid program shifted automation and manual procedures in order to comply with and benefit from the increased federal funding in early 2020. With the PHE winding down, every Medicaid program must look at how to return to regular operations and unwind, or undo, the continuous coverage requirement temporarily put in place by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Service (CMS). BerryDunn has collaborated with Medicaid programs to identify best practices and consider new opportunities to implement rollback methods in an effort to lower risk during the unwinding period and beyond. 

New learning programs considered

Administrators who have been assessing their staff and operational readiness to support the expected influx of renewals, policy changes, and staffing changes are considering launching learning programs ahead of the unwinding efforts. Using this time to engage with staff has uncovered the need to redeploy fundamental learning programs to prepare for the anticipated high volume of two-years of renewals. Administrators have also begun to engage with community leaders and health plan organizations in ways that provide coordinated and complete communication to beneficiaries. Many programs have looked at expanding benefits within the guidelines of CMS, such as extending post-partum coverage to a full 12 months and increasing reasonable compatibility to a larger percentage, recognizing the economy has evolved since 2020.

Other outreach efforts

During the pandemic, many beneficiaries moved without notifying the Medicaid program of the address change. Proactive Medicaid programs are working directly with health programs and medical facilities to ensure the most updated addresses are captured, and are using public transportation advertisements, online website reminders, and email notifications to encourage beneficiaries to update addresses.

In other locations with a high rate of unemployment in specific industries, Medicaid programs are working with identified outreach partners like unions and industry associations to communicate messaging of Medicaid benefits. Thousands of employees may have lost full-time employment during the pandemic and have returned to work with reduced hours and less benefits. As a sign of changing times, some programs are employing social media campaigns to connect with existing and new enrollees. 

Medicaid programs across the states and territories are finding creative ways to reach impacted communities. Program administrators are organizing staff and systems to be well positioned to undo the effects of the temporary policies. The dismantling of the two-plus years of PHE is expected to be performed within a 12-month period. As administrators eagerly anticipate the announcement of an extension or the pending PHE unwinding start date, one thing is certain: US states and territories are preparing to support an extensive population of Medicaid beneficiaries post pandemic.

BerryDunn is partnering with many states and territories to help ensure a successful unwind of temporary services and return to normal operations. If you would like to discuss how BerryDunn can support your needs, contact the Medicaid consulting team.
 

Article
How Medicaid programs are preparing for the operational challenges of the PHE unwinding

Read this if you are at a state Medicaid agency. 

As the end of the Public Health Emergency becomes more likely, much attention has been paid to the looming coverage cliff as state Medicaid agencies re-determine eligibility for their programs. The impacts can be mitigated in part by planning and taking proactive steps.

In the unsettling initial days of the COVID-19 Public Health Emergency (PHE), the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Service (CMS) temporarily increased federal matching funds for state Medicaid programs. In exchange, states would suspend redeterminations of enrollees’ eligibility for the duration of the PHE. 

For Medicaid, states were in effect prohibited from disenrolling an individual from Medicaid programs. The result, according to CMS data, is 14.8 million more people were enrolled in Medicaid as of late 2021 than before the pandemic, reaching a total of nearly 79 million Medicaid enrollees.  According to one estimate, the end of the PHE could bring a decline in the number of Medicaid enrollees by as many as 15 million. This number includes an estimated 8.7 million adults and 5.9 million children. 

Local and state government eligibility staff will need to review the submitted documents and determine if these members qualify for continued Medicaid coverage. The potential exists for members to lose coverage, due to factors such as having moved, not realizing their circumstances have otherwise changed, or being unable or unaware to return the required paperwork within appropriate timeframes.

State Medicaid agencies strive to maintain an equitable program while remaining trusted stewards of public funds. With a large base of beneficiaries, this change is expected to impact the community and the healthcare market, with broad implications for public health. Similarly, the federal requirement for continuous health coverage has also helped state Medicaid agencies by easing the strain on organizations during pandemic-related disruptions. 

For these reasons state Medicaid agencies may search for routes to limit the loss of coverage. This can be accomplished through finding policy levers to retain members, establishing routes to alternative forms of insurance, and mitigating the risk of coverage loss for members. 

Mitigating the likelihood of becoming uninsured

State Medicaid agencies can reduce the risk that members lose their coverage and become uninsured through a number of steps. 

  • Designing comprehensive, multi-pronged, and targeted communication strategies. States can help Medicaid members understand the requirements and timelines required to maintain their coverage.
  • Updating systems to automate and reduce administrative burden. Maximizing ex parte renewals through the use of existing data that is stored in integrated systems.
  • Making key decisions early. States can minimize coverage loss by carefully planning the unwinding process and their approach to resuming Medicaid eligibility renewals.
  • Coordinating with other forms of coverage. Confirm or design user-friendly pathways by which a member is transferred or referred to other alternatives like the Marketplace or CHIP.
  • Leveraging their health plans. Particularly when it comes to coordinating outreach and updating member information. Managed care plans are also able to refer members who are losing coverage to other qualified health plans.

Policy levers for retaining members

States may consider reviewing emergency state plan amendments and appendix k amendments completed during the PHE to determine what flexibilities are possible to continue under existing authorities. At the same time, states should consider what other policy options may help retain coverage for existing members- for example:

  • Adopt 12 months continuous eligibility. This can be done for children via a State Plan Amendment (SPA), for adults through an 1115 waiver, and for individuals enrolled in BHP (via BHP Blueprint revision) 
  • Establish 12 months of postpartum coverage. This can be done through several paths, including SPAs 
  • Review operational policy for efficiencies. For example, a State could consider modifying the frequency of periodic data matching 

Next steps

The US Department of Health and Human Service has previously indicated its intention to provide notification to states of the end of the PHE 60 days before its scheduled end. The PHE was renewed in April 2022, and as of this writing will last until mid-July, meaning enrollees could lose Medicaid coverage as soon as August 1. The enhanced FMAP and the Maintenance of Eligibility (MOE) requirements are in place until the end of the quarter in which the PHE ends. In the case of a July 2022 end date to the PHE, the enhanced FMAP would last through September 30, 2022. 

Regardless, Medicaid agencies will need to begin reviewing all enrollees’ eligibility, performing outreach, and designing system updates this summer. In terms of next steps, states should consider the following:

  • Evaluate your program and identify initiatives to prioritize in the coming year. Ask your CMS contact about the latest applicable guidance. 
  • Develop Advanced Planning Documents (APDs) to help fund technology needs for initiatives, along with training your SMA team and providers. 
  • Implement a communications management approach to engage stakeholders, and inform affected Medicaid members.
  • Marshal project management resources and develop a realistic and achievable roadmap to success.  
  • Explore agency contracting vehicles, cooperative contracts, and other procurements tools. 

We’re here to help. If you have more questions or want to have an in-depth conversation about your specific situation, please contact the Medicaid consulting team.

Article
Medicaid coverage gap: Tools and strategies for Medicaid agencies to help retain members

Read this if you are a not-for-profit organization.

With springtime upon us, it may be difficult to start thinking about this upcoming fall, but that is exactly what many folks in the nonprofit sector are starting to do. The reason for this? It’s because 2022 brings with it the mid-term election cycle. While technically an off-year election, many congressional and gubernatorial races are being contested, in addition to a myriad of questions that will appear on ballots across the country. It is around this time of year we start to see many questions from clients in the nonprofit sector in the area of political campaign activities, lobbying (both direct and grassroots), and education/advocacy.

This article will discuss the three major types of activities nonprofit organizations may or may not undertake in this arena and will offer guidance to give organizations the vote of confidence they need to not run afoul of the potential pitfalls when it comes to undertaking these activities.

Political campaign activity

Political campaign activities include participating or intervening in any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for elective public office, be it at the federal, state, or local level. Examples of such activities include contributions to political campaigns as well as making public statements in favor of or in opposition to any candidate. The IRS explicitly prohibits section 501(c)(3) organizations from conducting political campaign activities, the consequence of doing so being loss of exempt status. However, other types of exempt organizations (such as 501(c)(4) organizations) are allowed to engage in such activities, so long as those activities are not the organization’s primary activity. Only Section 527 organizations may engage in political campaign activities as their primary purpose. 

Direct lobbying

Direct lobbing activities attempt to influence legislation by directly communicating with legislative members regarding specific legislation. Examples of direct lobbying include contacting members of Congress and asking them to vote for or against a specific piece of legislation.

Grassroots lobbying

Grassroots lobbying, on the other hand, attempts to influence legislation by affecting the opinions of the general public and include a call to action. Examples of grassroots lobbying include requesting members of the general public to contact their representatives to urge them to vote for or against specific legislation.  

A quick way to remember the difference:
Political = think “P” for People – advocating for or against a specific candidate 
Lobbying = think “L” for Legislation – advocating for or against a specific bill

Education/advocacy

Organizations may engage in activities designed to educate or advocate for a particular cause so long as it does not take a specific position. For example, telling members of Congress how grants helped constituents would be considered an educational activity. However, attempting to get a member of Congress to vote for or against specific piece of legislation that would affect grant funding would be considered lobbying. Another example would be educating or informing the general public about a specific piece of legislation. Organizations need to be mindful here as taking a specific position one way or the other would lend itself to the activity being deemed to be lobbying, and not merely education of the general public. There is no limit on how much education/advocacy activity a nonprofit organization may conduct.

Why does this matter?

As you can see, there is a very fine line between lobbying and education, so it is important to understand the differences so that an organization conducting educational activities does not inadvertently end up conducting lobbying activities.

Organizations exempt under Code Section 501(c)(3) can conduct only lobbying activities that are not substantial to its overall activities. A 501(c)(3) organization may risk losing its exempt status and may face excise taxes on the lobbying expenditures if it is deemed to be conducting excess lobbying, whereas section 501(c)(4), (c)(5), and (c)(6) organizations may engage in an unlimited amount of lobbying activity.

What is substantial?

Unfortunately, there is no bright line test for determining what is considered substantial versus insubstantial. As an industry standard, many practitioners have taken a position that insubstantial means five percent or less of total expenditures, but that position is not codified and could be challenged by the IRS. 

Section 501(c)(3) organizations that intend to conduct lobbying activities on a regular basis may want to consider making an election under Code Section 501(h). This election is only applicable to 501(c)(3) organizations and provides a defined amount of lobbying activity an organization may conduct without jeopardizing its exempt status or becoming subject to excise tax. The 501(h) election limit is based on total organization expenditures with a maximum allowance of $1 million for “large organizations” (defined as an organization with total expenditures over $17,000,000). 

While the 501(h) election provides some clarity as to how much lobbying activity can be conducted, it may be prohibitive for some organizations whose total expenditures greatly exceed the $17,000,000 threshold. Another item to be aware of is that the lobbying threshold applies to all members of an affiliated group combined, which means the entire group shares the maximum threshold allowed. 

Another option for those engaging in lobbying is to create a separate entity (such as a 501(c)(4) organization) which conducts all lobbying activities, insulating the 501(c)(3) organization from these activities. As previously mentioned, organizations exempt under Code Section 501(c)(4) can conduct an unlimited amount of lobbying activities but can only conduct limited political campaign activities.

What about political campaign activities?

Section 527 organizations, known as political action committees, are exempt organizations dedicated specifically to conducting political campaign activities. If a 501(c)(4), (c)(5), or (c)(6) organization makes a contribution to a 527 organization, it may be required to file a Form 1120-POL and be subject to tax at the corporate tax rate (currently a flat 21%) based on the lesser of the political campaign expenditures or the organization’s net investment income. State income taxes may also be applicable. Section 501(c)(3) organizations may not make contributions to 527 organizations. 

If your organization is considering participation in any of the above activities, we would recommend you reach out to your not-for-profit tax team for additional information. We’re here to help!

Article
Lobbying and politics and education, oh my!

Read this if you are at a public health agency.

As public health workforce challenges worsen through retirements, burnout, and added need for public health workers highlighted by the COVID-19 pandemic, funding levels for public health remain increased for the time being. This provides opportunities for states to leverage federal programs and funding streams to help ensure a strong and capable public health workforce to meet the needs of all communities. An important consideration for states is the level of cultural competence among their public health workforce.

Cultural competence: Definition and benefits

Cultural competence refers to the capacity to function effectively, both as an individual and an organization, in relation to community members’ cultural beliefs, behaviors, and needs. It allows public health professionals to provide more effective public health services to individuals and communities with cultures different from their own—through awareness, respect, and willingness to learn about cultural differences. The necessity of cultural competence in public health is especially timely due to new and existing disparities that have been highlighted by COVID-19 outcomes and the ripple effects of the pandemic.

Benefits of a culturally competent public health workforce include greater public trust in the public health system, more equitable and effective public health services, improved understanding of existing barriers and community health status, and the potential to reduce disparities and improve both healthcare access and health outcomes in historically marginalized communities.

As many states face significant workforce gaps and challenges in recruiting, training, and retaining staff, it is important to leverage best practices and key indicators of success to inform a sustainable and effective approach for workforce development. States may benefit from assessing gaps in cultural competence and related skills, and by identifying specific cultural competency areas and abilities they aim to achieve in the workforce. A strategic approach is necessary for maximizing the sustainability and long-term benefit of federal funding opportunities, such as those for public health workforce development in rural areas. 

Strategies and best practices for developing a culturally competent public health workforce 

There are many steps you can take toward building cultural competence in your agency. Some of them include:

  • Develop and implement a periodic assessment of workforce cultural competence, and training to measure improvement and incorporate up-to-date best practices
  • Recruit diverse staff to reflect the culture and demographics of communities, including the provision of linguistic support
  • Create and improve pipeline training programs by collaborating with local colleges, universities, and schools of public health and identifying existing gaps in the workforce and in public health educational opportunities 
  • Support inter-professional education and teams for community-based interventions, to foster collaboration between public health and healthcare professionals in the community to better meet needs 

Important first steps to improve and foster cultural competence in the public health workforce include setting goals related to building community partnerships and what those partnerships will achieve. 

Other steps for building cultural competence 

Additionally, collecting diversity data and demographic characteristics of the public health workforce, measuring and evaluating performance of the public health workforce and public health services, and reflecting community diversity within the workforce are necessary for developing a workforce that supports community cohesion and trust of community members. These steps can help you assess where you can strengthen services and how communities can be better reflected in the public health services they receive. Effective communication and language access are also critical steps to improve and foster cultural competence in the public health workforce.

BerryDunn can provide state public health and human services agencies with strategic policy and programmatic guidance and management support to maximize the benefits of federal programs to facilitate public health workforce development. 

If you have any questions about your specific situation, or would like more information, please contact our Public Health Consulting team. We’re here to help.

Article
Developing a culturally competent public health workforce

Read this if your State Medicaid Agency is planning Medicaid Enterprise System enhancements.

Are you a system integrator (SI) or a State Medicaid Agency (SMA) implementing or enhancing a Medicaid system or specific module? Have you considered how decisions made during design and implementation could impact the federal Payment Error Rate Measurement (PERM) reviews for SMAs?

The goal of PERM is to measure and report an unbiased estimate of the true improper payment rate for Medicaid and Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP). Every state is reviewed once every three years using a sample that includes both fee for service (FFS) and managed care (MC) payments. A state assigned error rate is not the only consequence resulting from the PERM review; there are also financial implications.

Risk reduction from PERM review

Maintaining a focus on PERM review factors when making decisions during design and implementation can protect states by reducing the risk of:

  • Submitting change requests (CR) during implementation, which can result in additional cost and time
  • Implementing changes to existing Medicaid systems during maintenance and operations
  • Findings reported during certification efforts
  • Refunding federal dollars due to improperly paid claims
  • A reduction in federal match on all claims paid

It is also important to understand the benefits of a dedicated PERM team within the state organization that includes members from the system vendor and outside PERM experts. These benefits include providing states an additional level of security to help ensure a positive outcome to the federal PERM review, helping to protect federal funding.

Having a dedicated team will help ensure all decisions made during system updates and/or implementations are made while keeping focus on PERM requirements and the further impacts of PERM reviews, saving time and remaining compliant.

Plan ahead for best results

When planning for a new module or Medicaid system request for proposal (RFPs), consider PERM-related requirements to help ensure all PERM needs are met to prevent errors and repayment of federal funds. Including PERM requirements can also help your agency ensure federal compliance and successful PERM audits. Doing so will likely reduce the amount of time system integrators spend re-working earlier development decisions and help ensure claim payments are processed, and eligibility determinations are made in accordance with federal and state regulations.

If you have questions about PERM or your specific situation, please contact our Medicaid Consulting team. We’re here to help.

Article
PERM success for Medicaid agencies through system implementations

Read this if you are a behavioral health agency leader looking for solutions to manage mental health, substance misuse, and overdose crises.

As state health departments across the country continue to grapple with rising COVID-19 cases, stalling vaccination rates, and public heath workforce burnout, other crises in behavioral health may be looming. Diverted resources, disruption in treatment, and the mental stress of the COVID-19 pandemic have exacerbated mental health disorders, substance use, and drug overdoses.

State agencies need behavioral health solutions perhaps now more than ever. BerryDunn works with state agencies to mitigate the challenges of managing behavioral health and implement innovative strategies and solutions to better serve beneficiaries. Read on to understand how conducting a needs assessment, redesigning processes, and/or establishing a strategic plan can amplify the impact of your programs. 

Behavioral health in crisis

The prevalence of mental illness and substance use disorders has steadily increased over the past decade, and the pandemic has exacerbated these trends. A number of recently released studies show increases in symptoms of anxiety, depression, and suicidal ideation. One CDC study indicates that in June 2020 over 40% of adults reported an adverse mental or behavioral health condition, which includes about 13% who have started or increased substance use to cope with stress or emotions related to COVID-19.1 

The toll on behavioral health outcomes is compounded by the pandemic’s disruption to behavioral health services. According to the National Council for Behavioral Health, 65% of behavioral health organizations have had to cancel, reschedule, or turn away patients, even as organizations see a dramatic increase in the demand for services.2,3 Moreover, treatment facilities and harm reduction programs across the country have scaled back services or closed entirely due to social distancing requirements, insufficient personal protective equipment, budget shortfalls, and other challenges.4 These disruptions in access to care and service delivery are having a severe impact.

Several studies indicate that patients report new barriers to care or changes in treatment and support services after the onset of the pandemic.5, 6 Barriers to care are particularly disruptive for people with substance use disorders. Social isolation and mental illness, coupled with limited treatment options and harm reduction services, creates a higher risk of suicide ideation, substance misuse, and overdose deaths.

For example, the opioid epidemic was still surging when the pandemic began, and rates of overdose have since spiked or elevated in every state across the country.7 After a decline of overdose deaths in 2018 for the first time in two decades, the CDC reported 81,230 overdose deaths from June 2019 to May 2020, the highest number of overdose deaths ever recorded in a 12-month period.8 

These trends do not appear to be improving. On October 3, the CDC reported that from March 2020 to March 2021, overdose deaths have increased 29.6% compared to the previous year, and that number will only continue to climb as more data comes in.9  

As the country continues to experience an increase in mental illness, suicide, and substance use disorders, states are in need of capacity and support to identify and/or implement strategies to mitigate these challenges. 

Solutions for state agencies

Behavioral health has been recognized as a priority issue and service area that will require significant resources and innovation. In May, the US Department of Health and Human Services' (HHS) Secretary Xavier Becerra reestablished the Behavioral Health Coordinating Council to facilitate collaborative, innovative, transparent, equitable, and action-oriented approaches to address the HHS behavioral health agenda. The 2022 budget allocates $1.6 billion to the Community Mental Health Services Block Grant, which is more than double the Fiscal Year (FY) 2021 funding and $3.9 billion more than in FY 2020, to address the opioid epidemic in addition to other substance use disorders.10 

As COVID-19 continues to exacerbate behavioral health issues, states need innovative solutions to take on these challenges and leverage additional federal funding. COVID-19 is still consuming the time of many state leaders and staff, so states have a limited capacity to plan, implement, and manage the new initiatives to adequately address these issues. Here are three ways health departments can capitalize on the additional funding.

Conduct a needs assessment to identify opportunities to improve use of data and program outcomes

Despite meeting baseline reporting requirements, state agencies often lack sufficient quality data to assess program outcomes, identify underserved populations, and obtain a holistic view of the comprehensive system of care for behavioral health services. Although state agencies may be able to recognize challenges in the delivery or administration of behavioral health services, it can be difficult to identify solutions that result in sustained improvements.

By performing a structured needs assessment, health departments can evaluate their processes, systems, and resources to better understand how they are using data, and how to optimize programs to tailor behavioral health services and promote better health outcomes and a more equitable distribution of care. This analysis provides the insight for agencies to understand not only the strengths and challenges of the current environment, but also the desires and opportunities for a future solution that takes into account stakeholder needs, best practice, and emerging technologies. 

Some of the benefits we have seen our clients enjoy as a result of performing a needs assessment include: 

  • Discovering and validating strengths and challenges of current state operations through independent evaluation
  • Establishing a clear roadmap for future business and technological improvements
  • Determining costs and benefits of new, alternative, or enhanced systems and/or processes
  • Identifying the specific business and technical requirements to achieve and improve performance outcomes 

Timely, accurate, and comprehensive data is critical to improving behavioral health outcomes, and the information gathered during a needs assessment can inform further activities that support programmatic improvements. Further activities might include conducting a fit-gap analysis, performing business process redesign, establishing a prioritization matrix, and more. By identifying the greatest needs and implementing plans to address them, state agencies can better handle the impact on behavioral health services resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic and serve individuals with mental health or substance use disorders more efficiently and effectively.

Redesign processes to improve how individuals access treatment and services

Despite the availability of behavioral health services, inefficient business and technical processes can delay and frustrate individuals seeking care and in some cases, make them stop seeking care altogether. With limited resources and increasing demands, behavioral health agencies should analyze and redesign work flows to maximize efficiency, security, and efficacy. Here are a few examples of process improvements states can achieve through process redesign:

  • Streamlined data processes to reduce duplicative data entry 
  • Automated and aligned manual data collection processes 
  • Integrated siloed health information systems
  • Focused activities to maximize staff strengths
  • Increased process transparency to improve communication and collaboration 

By placing the consumer experience at the core of all services, state health departments can redesign business and technical processes to optimize the continuum of care. A comprehensive approach takes into account all aspects that contribute to the delivery of behavioral health services, including both administrative and financial processes. This helps ensure interconnected activities continue to be performed efficiently and effectively. Such improvements help consumers with co-occurring disorders (mental illness and substance use disorder) and/or developmental disorders find “no wrong door” when seeking care. 

Establish a strategic plan of action to address the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic

With the influx of available dollars resulting from the American Recovery Plan Act and other state and federal investments, health departments have a unique opportunity to fund specific initiatives to enhance the delivery and administration of behavioral health services. Understanding how to allocate the millions of newly awarded dollars in an impactful and sustainable way can be challenging. Furthermore, the additional reporting and compliance requirements linked to the funding can be difficult to navigate in addition to current monitoring obligations. 

The best way to begin using the available funding is to develop and implement strategic plans that optimize funds for behavioral health programs and services. You can establish priorities and identify sustainable solutions that build capacity, streamline operations, and promote the equitable distribution of care across populations. A few of the activities state health departments have undertaken resulting from the strategic planning initiatives include: 

  • Modernizing IT systems, including data management solutions and Electronic Health Records systems to support inpatient, outpatient, and community mental health and substance use programs 
  • Promoting organizational change management 
  • Establishing grant programs for community-driven solutions to promote health equity for the underserved population
  • Organizing, managing, and/or supporting stakeholder engagement efforts to effectively collaborate with internal and external stakeholders for a strong and comprehensive approach

The prevalence of mental illness and substance use disorder were areas of concern prior to COVID-19, and the pandemic has only made these issues worse, while adding more administrative challenges. State health departments have had to redirect their existing staff to work to address COVID-19, leaving a limited capacity to manage existing state-level programs and little to no capacity to plan and implement new initiatives. 

The federal administration and HHS are working to provide financial support to states to work to address these exacerbated health concerns; however, with the limited state capacity, states need additional support to plan, implement, and/or manage new initiatives. BerryDunn has a wide breadth of knowledge and experience in conducting needs assessments, redesigning processes, and establishing strategic plans that are aimed at amplifying the impact of state programs. Contact our behavioral health consulting team to learn more about how we can help. 

Sources:
Mental Health, Substance Use, and Suicidal Ideation During the COVID-19 Pandemic, CDC.gov
COVID-19 Pandemic Impact on Harm Reduction Services: An Environmental Scan, thenationalcouncil.org
National Council for Behavioral Health Polling Presentation, thenationalcouncil.org
The Impact of COVID-19 on Syringe Services Programs in the United States, nih.gov
COVID-19 Pandemic Impact on Harm Reduction Services: An Environmental Scan, thenationalcouncil.org
COVID-19-Related Treatment Service Disruptions Among People with Single- and Polysubstance Use Concerns, Journal of Substance Abuse Treatment
Issue Brief: Nation’s Drug-Related Overdose and Death Epidemic Continues to Worsen, American Medical Association
Increase in Fatal Drug Overdoses Across the United States Driven by Synthetic Opioids Before and During the COVID-19 Pandemic, CDC.gov
Provisional Drug Overdose Death Counts, CDC.gov
10 Fiscal Year 2022 Budget in Brief: Strengthening Health and Opportunity for All Americans, HHS.gov

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COVID's impact on behavioral health: Solutions for state agencies

Read this if you used COVID-19 relief funds to pay essential workers.

The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) and American Rescue Plan (ARPA) Acts allowed states and local governments to use COVID-19 relief funds to provide premium pay to essential workers. Many states took advantage of this opportunity, giving stipends or hourly rate increases to government and other frontline employees who worked during the pandemic, such as healthcare workers, teachers, correctional officers, and police officers.

States’ initial focus was to get the money to the essential workers as quickly as possible, but these decisions may cause them to be out of compliance with the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), which sets standards for minimum wage, overtime pay, and recordkeeping. As a result, states should review how the funds were disbursed and if payroll adjustments are necessary. The amount, form, and recipients of the pay varied widely from state to state, making determining whether states are compliant with FLSA and calculating any discrepancies an immensely complex task. 

For example, states that disbursed one-time payments to essential workers will likely be able to treat those payments like standard one-time bonuses, while recurring stipends or hourly rate increases should be included in employee’s regular rate when calculating overtime pay. Because this is an unprecedented situation for both states and the federal government, clear guidance is not yet available from the Department of Labor. 

Fortunately, BerryDunn is already working with clients to review their use of the COVID-19 relief funds to help ensure essential workers were paid fairly. Our team is qualified to guide you through your unique situation and help you remain in compliance with FLSA guidelines.

If you have questions about your particular circumstances, please call our Compliance and Risk Management consulting team. We are here to help and happy to discuss options to pay for these services using federal funds.

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Was your COVID-19 essential worker hazard pay FLSA-compliant?