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Massachusetts Launches Community Behavioral Health Center at Cambridge Health Alliance

The Cambridge Health Alliance Behavior Health Center is located at 1493 Cambridge St.
The Cambridge Health Alliance Behavior Health Center is located at 1493 Cambridge St. By Addison Y. Liu
By Erika K. Chung and Emily L. Ding, Crimson Staff Writers

Former Massachusetts Governor Charlie D. Baker ’79 and Lt. Governor Karyn E. Polito rolled out new healthcare programs for residents regardless of health insurance status to a network of 25 Community Behavioral Health Centers across the state last month.

The launch of the centers forms the backbone of the Baker-Polito administration’s Roadmap for Behavioral Health Reform, which was put into effect last month and aims to provide easy access to mental health and substance use services to Massachusetts residents. Hundreds of residents have accessed the programs — which include a 24-hour behavioral health hotline, urgent care, and 24-hour mobile crisis services — since the rollout.

The Cambridge Health Alliance houses the only CBHC in Cambridge. Joan Taglieri, a senior director at CHA, lauded the initiative for improving access to mental health care, which she said decreased during the pandemic.

“This initiative was focused very much on access to behavioral health services, which has been horrible for many, many, many years before the pandemic and then got just that much worse during the pandemic — both because of the loss of workforce, but also because the increase in the behavioral health need that was a consequence of the pandemic,” Taglieri said.

Before the launch of the CBHCs, Taglieri said clinics offering behavioral health care were “woefully underpaid” — a problem addressed by the the state initiative.

“The payment has often been less than the cost of delivering the service,” she said. “And that has had a big impact on the availability of behavioral health services because you have agencies who are going to have to worry about losing money if they try to expand services to meet the need.”

The state doubled the reimbursement for centers providing behavioral health services and provided startup funding, which the CHA used to train new clinical staff.

Sarah Stoddard-Gunn, a program leader and licensed social worker at CHA, said behavioral health centers have certain advantages over typical providers of mental health care.

“It's very different than a standard mental health clinic where, like a large mental health clinic, there’s often a long, lengthy waitlist referral process. There are often barriers to access, like needing a primary care doctor in the system,” Stoddard-Gunn said. “We offer different ways to access care.”

“It's really nice to not have a massive bureaucracy, and when someone needs help, they can walk in and get something,” Stoddard-Gunn added.

Patients needing support are typically able to walk in to see a therapist, though appointments can also be scheduled ahead of time. If a patient catches the clinic at a shift change, a “brief safety check-in” will be done in addition to scheduling an appointment for the next day, according to Stoddard-Gunn.

Creating the behavioral health center in Cambridge was not without its challenges. Taglieri said the health care workforce was “severely depleted over the course of the pandemic,” resulting in a need to hire more staff.

“We actually ended up doing quite well — we still have some open positions that we may be using temporary behavioral health staff,” Taglieri said. “In spite of the challenges, I think we’ve been able to get the staff with the qualifications needed.”

According to Stoddard-Gunn, three therapists, a full-time psychiatric registered nurse, and front desk staff have recently joined CHA’s team, with plans to onboard a part-time psychiatrist, a recovery coach, and peer specialists within the coming months.

Taglieri said she expects it will take roughly one or two years for the CBHC at the Cambridge Health Alliance to be fully operational. She added that the CBHCs are designed for those who “don't automatically know what to do” when confronted with a behavioral health problem.

“Most people, if they have a medical, they have a pretty good idea of their choices — then you can go to an ED, call your doctor, or even now go to an urgent care center — but that’s not the same for behavioral health,” Taglieri said. “A big part of this initiative is to change that.”

—Staff writer Erika K. Chung can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @erikakychung.

—Staff writer Emily L. Ding can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @emilylding.

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