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    Fort Riley Summit Tackles Mental Healthcare Shortage



    Story by Jorge Gomez 

    Irwin Army Community Hospital

    Robbin Cole, the CEO of Pawnee Mental Health Services, thought it was a bad idea, but said it anyway to a brainstorming group of community leaders from Manhattan, Junction City and Fort Riley, “why not pool together all mental health resources in the community into one location?”
    “When you have resources in different silos there’s always a little bit of waste” she said. Cancelled appointments, no shows, provider burnout, and other uncontrollable factors accumulate into wasted access at a community-wide level.
    Cole was one of a dozen civilian partners within the local TRICARE network who collaborated with Fort Riley leadership for an all-day, first-time ever Mental Health Summit April 28. Their goal was understanding each other’s capabilities, needs, and challenges to collectively tackle the greater problem of improving access to care to Active Duty personnel and their respective families.
    “The reason were doing this is to help each other, achieve synergy within the community,” said MG Douglas A. Sims II, 1st Infantry Division and Fort Riley commanding general, who linked into the summit from Germany via videoconference.
    He informed the attendees about ongoing efforts to promote wellness and resiliency among Soldiers and family members but he also highlighted the need to reduce waiting times for those who require mental healthcare both on and off the installation.
    “If nothing else, (the summit) will continue to establish the connections and relationships that will make us successful as a group,” Sims said. “Ultimately this is about helping people to thrive.”
    Connections begin by putting faces to names, said MAJ William Pitts, Director of Behavioral Health for Irwin Army Community Hospital.
    “This is a forum to develop ideas that benefit one another and our patient population. There are some bad ideas but we can’t get to that point unless we hear the idea, have a chance to discuss and reflect upon it,” Pitts said.
    “There are some bad ideas, but we can’t get to that point unless we hear the idea, have a chance to discuss and reflect upon it,” Pitts said. He empowered summit attendees to entertain what may sound like “a dumb or bad idea because it might be what catalyzes a great idea.”
    Cole took that guidance to heart knowing that legal hurdles may stifle an otherwise sensible idea to trigger creative discussion for the next best thing from her Army and civilian counterparts. But ideas can’t be proposed until everyone shares a common picture of the problem(s) and contributing factors.
    Leveraging limited resources in the face of an increasing demand is not unique to the Fort Riley.
    COL Sam Preston, Chief of Behavioral Health Division in the Office of the Surgeon General, chimed in from Alaska through videoconferencing and framed the problem on a wider scale. He displayed a map illustrating the availability of psychiatrists and showing Kansas in one of the regions with the lowest relative concentration of prescription providers for mental health.
    But even those regions with a high concentration of psychiatrists doesn’t translate into access if they’re not taking insurance, much less TRICARE.
    “Just because there are areas where there are mental health providers, that doesn’t mean that young Soldier families can pony up $300 for a 45-minute session with a psychiatrist,” Preston said.
    “That makes it absolutely essential for you to come together and combine resources to best support your community,” Preston said. “There’s nothing in my medicine cabinet that can reduce mental health illness more than what you (summit attendees) can do by developing an identity, providing purpose for your community and instilling meaning.”
    Pawnee Mental Health shares similar challenges of an inability to keep with up a surging demand for mental healthcare in the civilian community as it strives to support military families. Over a period of six months, Pawnee Mental Health provided care for 119 TRICARE beneficiaries which represent about 15 percent of its volume. Whether Pawnee can see more beneficiaries is a challenge that goes beyond a simple analysis of supply and demand. TRICARE provider reimbursement rates, contract requirements and credentialing may be factors contributing to the supply problem.
    Jim McKillup, Provider Network Manager at Health Net Federal Services, said TRICARE rates may not be the highest compared to other insurers but Health Net, the TRICARE-West regional contractor, is incentivized to process claims in a speedy manner.
    How to be efficient with a limited supply of providers and how to remove barriers to increase that supply were the most salient topics during the summit. Other questions regarding the nature of the demand were raised during breakout sessions.
    Dr. Sarah Wesch, a Manhattan clinical psychologist, said that in the course of her 20 years of practice she has noted an increase of social anxiety correlated to a lack of peer support and excessive consumption of technology and social media.
    “The more people are getting used to meeting with friends online the worse their social skills are getting,” said Wesch. “The difference in social anxiety that I see in young people now is almost to the point of disability.”
    She noted a patient who had trouble calling her psychiatrist to fill a medication because out of fear of using the phone and speak to another person. Others who get intimidated at the prospect of meeting similar people.
    “I believe that mental health does best when we are outdoors, when we are with other humans, when we’re in nature, and most people are turning to the exact opposite,” Wesch said.
    Mental wellness is a balancing act of physical exercise, having friends to talk in person, minimizing use of technology, and getting the right amount of sleep, Wesch said.
    At the conclusion of the summit, leaders recognized the need to continue the discussion through quarterly meetings. Some systemic challenges were recognized as beyond the summit’s ability to affect change if they were rooted in regulations. But that didn’t deter Cole from pecking at an insurmountable challenge.
    “What the Soldiers do for our country is just way too important,” she said. “Having healthy Soldiers and healthy families are too vital to give up on the dream that they would have access to the services they need.”



    Date Taken: 04.29.2022
    Date Posted: 05.02.2022 15:16
    Story ID: 419739
    Location: FORT RILEY, KS, US

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