Consortium addresses behavioral health services and coverage for farmworkers

aibarra@mercedsunstar.comJune 19, 2014 

Behavioral health services will see some expansion in Merced and Stanislaus counties, according to an announcement made Thursday by Golden Valley Health Centers officials at the Merced County Health Care Consortium meeting.

Rosalba Serrano, a licensed clinical social worker at Golden Valley Health Centers, said the health center system hired four behavioral clinicians this week, adding to its team of 16.

GVHC’s behavioral team in Merced and Stanislaus also includes three psychiatrists, one addiction specialist, two case managers and three outreach workers.

Behavioral health providers address mental illnesses as well as anxiety, depression, substance abuse, parenting concerns and stress. GVHC has an integrated program, in which behavioral health clinicians work with primary care providers to treat a patient, addressing both physical and mental health needs, Serrano said.

“We know the need is here. Hiring more clinicians is just the first step to further expanding our supportive services,” Serrano said. The ideal goal, she said, would be to have one behavioral clinician for every three primary care physicians.

Serrano said such services have been very limited in Merced County. With integrated behavioral health services, the focus is to provide same-day access for patients being seen by their primary care doctors. When patients can make a one-stop visit to address mental and physical concerns, it saves them time and money, she added.

An integrated program also allows behavioral specialists to intervene with a number of people who otherwise would never have contact with a mental health clinician. The handoff approach from primary care providers to behavioral specialists reduces the stigma associated with mental health, Serrano said.

“When their physician introduces us as their colleague, the patient automatically feels safe and comfortable,” she added. “This lowers the stigma and helps the patient open up to us.”

Also during Thursday’s meeting, Joel Diringer, founder of Central California-based health policy and data consulting firm Diringer and Associates, presented information on health coverage options and challenges for California’s farmworkers.

According to Diringer’s presentation, about 60 to 75 percent of the 1.2 million agricultural workers in California are not authorized to work in the U.S., and fewer than 20 percent receive employer-provided health benefits.

Diringer said maintaining healthy field workers is key to ensure a strong and stable workforce for California’s $43 billion agricultural industry. Research has found that nearly 1 in 5 male farm workers are at risk of developing a chronic disease, and most are vulnerable to occupational injuries, he added.

Some possible solutions for this group’s lack of accessible health care, Diringer explained, include an expansion of public benefits for undocumented workers and an immigration reform that would provide a pathway to legalization and access to benefits.

Sun-Star staff writer Ana B. Ibarra can be reached at (209) 385-2486 or aibarra@mercedsunstar.com.

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