As you all know, one of the major challenges for effective health care delivery is the integration of services, particularly behavioral health and physical health programs. It is very rare that patients come to health clinics or providers with just one issue and if we can do our best to treat the whole person, it improves quality of care and outcomes for our residents.

I’ve brought this up in every meeting I’ve had with AmeriHealth staff and so it’s very exciting and impressive that AmeriHealth, who is new to the District, has called for this summit.

For a long time in the District, behavioral health programs were solely reliant on grant funding and therefore the services were not as expansive or as available as they should have been for all of our residents.

Many health plans did not offer coverage for behavioral health services. Providers were not accessible in all parts of the city – for example, a few years ago there was only one child psychiatrist that was east of the River. And there was little outreach to our African-American communities who were long reluctant to discuss mental health and illness even though many of those residents were dealing with incidents causing mental trauma on a daily basis.

As a result, there is a gap in the District of Columbia between our white and higher income residents and their minority and low-income counterparts when it comes to considering behavioral health and receiving proper care.

According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of Minority Services, African Americans are 20 percent more likely to report having “serious psychological distress” than non-Hispanic Whites. Yet, young adult African Americans are less likely to seek mental health services than their White counterparts.  In fact, the depression rate among African American women is estimated to be almost 50 percent higher than that of Caucasian women.

We know that when individuals are facing mental illness or challenge, and essentially cope and suffer in silence, the problem doesn’t go away; it just tends to manifest in other physical health issues becoming more costly and problematic as time goes on. This is why I think integration of behavioral health and physical health programs are key and I’m excited that you all are here to identify integration projects and make firm commitments to implementing them in 2014-15.

We have certainly come a long way in the District in terms of behavioral health services. I sit on the Committee on Education at the Council and every time I visit a school they are not just talking about the guidance counselor anymore, we now have psychologists and family therapists along with nurses and dentists who are coming directly to the schools to provide services because we realize how important it is to take care of the health of the whole child.

This summer I visited 12 primary health clinics throughout the District. With the rollout of the Affordable Care Act and the increase demand for health care, I wanted to get an on-the-ground feel of what health access is really like in the District. What I found were successful, mission-driven health clinics that are going above and beyond to meet the whole needs of the patients they serve. While they all were borne out of a need to serve a particular community or treat a specific health issue, they’ve evolved to treat the whole person. Behavioral health services are now integrated into all of them.

We need more clinics and health providers who see this importance in the District. That is why a couple of weeks ago when I sent my budget priorities for FY15 to the Mayor, I included a request that he infuse $3 million into the health professionals recruitment fund to help our clinics and hospitals recruit more providers to work and setup practice in our neediest of neighborhoods. Treating the whole patient is the only way we are really going to move the needle in terms of improving health outcomes for patients and reducing overall costs for care.

I want to thank you all for taking time out of your schedules to have these conversations. They are imperative for District residents and the patients you all serve!