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Medi-Cal Transformation Expands Access to Behavioral Health Care Services


As the Department of Health Care Services (DHCS) continues to transform Medi-Cal, the state is addressing behavioral health needs, like mental health care and substance use disorder services, through health care. Medi-Cal, California’s Medicaid program, provides coverage for one in three — or 15 million — Californians, and now includes expanded services to meet their healthcare needs well beyond the doctor’s office.

At this briefing, DHCS leaders and community health care providers shared how Medi-Cal is helping Californians needing mental health and substance use disorder treatment lead healthier lives. This is the third in a series of briefings by Ethnic Media Services exploring the ongoing Medi-Cal transformation to create a whole-person health system for all Californians.

In the recent briefing with Paula Wilhelm, Interim Deputy Director of Behavioral Health at the California Department of Health Care Services (DHCS), significant strides in behavioral health services for medical members were highlighted. Wilhelm expressed enthusiasm about discussing the vital role of behavioral health in overall well-being, stating, “Mental health is just as important as physical health, and all of our health outcomes are intertwined.”

Wilhelm emphasized the challenges individuals face in accessing care, from coping with mental health needs to addressing substance use disorders, housing, and food insecurity. She underscored DHCS’s commitment to transforming mental health and substance use disorder services, collectively referred to as behavioral health, in collaboration with medical-managed care plans and care providers.

“We want our medical members to know that care is available,” Wilhelm affirmed, citing various services ranging from prevention and wellness programs to intensive treatment options, including crisis care and medication coverage for mental health and substance use disorders.

Highlighting ongoing initiatives, Wilhelm discussed the Behavioral Health Services Act, also known as Proposition One, which aims to reorganize and improve publicly funded behavioral health services. “Our overarching goal is to make it easier for individuals to access healthcare and necessary services,” she stated.

Key elements of the behavioral health transformation include equitable funding for substance use disorder treatment, expanded services, investments in housing and the behavioral health workforce, and a focus on outcomes, accountability, and health equity.

Wilhelm also addressed the challenge of navigating the healthcare system, emphasizing the implementation of a “no wrong door” approach to ensure access to compassionate providers. Additionally, she highlighted behavioral health payment reform to align payment models with industry standards and incentivize quality care.

Responding to questions about accessing services, Wilhelm noted that behavioral health services are administered by county agencies, each offering a 24-hour access line for individuals seeking care.

Jennifer Oliphant, LCSW, the Chekws: Hope for Tomorrow Program Director at Two Feathers Native American Family Services, shared insights into the organization’s transformative work serving Indigenous communities in Humboldt County, Northern California.

With eight federally recognized tribes and a significant Indigenous population, Two Feathers operates as a tribally chartered nonprofit dedicated to serving Indigenous people in the region, regardless of their residency status. Oliphant emphasized the agency’s focus on youth and families, coupled with a community-organizing approach.

Oliphant highlighted the integration of Medical contracts with grant funding to tailor services to better meet the needs of the community. “We’ve had immense growth in the last couple of years, and our Medical contract has helped us to do that,” she explained.

Among the agency’s offerings are Equine therapy, collaborations with local universities to train future workforce members, and a peer specialist service stream aimed at integrating various programs. Oliphant expressed excitement about the Youth Development Leadership Program, where teenagers are employed and engaged in a curriculum encompassing social-emotional skill-building, college tours, and cultural education.

Providing a real-life example, Oliphant illustrated the program’s impact on a struggling youth who, through participation, found motivation to engage in counseling and other supportive services. “The change has been just remarkable,” she remarked.

Two Feathers’ holistic approach, blending traditional counseling with community engagement and skill-building initiatives, reflects its commitment to empowering Indigenous youth and fostering resilient communities.

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