Coronavirus Changes the Game for Behavioral Health Services in Nebraska

April 27, 2020, 11:24 a.m. ·


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The Coronavirus pandemic has caused many changes for healthcare providers across Nebraska and the nation. In behavioral health services, some of those immediate changes have been beneficial to a large portion of the state.

Lutheran Family Services (LFS) provides mental health counseling, substance use counselling, as well as services for people with severe mental illnesses in Nebraska. Paul Greenwell is the assistant vice president for adult behavior services for the eastern coverage area for LFS, which includes Omaha, Bellevue and Fremont. He said the coronavirus pandemic changed the game for behavioral health.

“Behavioral health services are traditionally a face-to-face very interpersonal service and so it's taken some getting used to,” Greenwell said. “Having that screen in between you.”

Before the coronavirus pandemic, LFS had been doing a smaller percentage of their services via telehealth. They had five rooms available for video conferencing. After the CDC and Governor Ricketts’ recommendations, LFS’s telehealth capacity expanded to 55 rooms.

“Nobody has lived through something like this before,” Greenwell said. “So to some degree we're having to be inventive, creative and innovative along the way.”

For behavior services, LFS is conducting more than 1,000 telehealth meetings every week.

“Telehealth cuts through that geographic barrier,” Greenwell said. “So rather than requiring that patients and clients travel to their health care provider, telehealth brings us an opportunity to get the provider really right into your living room.”

Greenwell said this is helpful for providers, but will also benefit clients.

“I think sometimes we take for granted that everybody has that smart device and has that internet connection at home that will support this type of service,” Greenwell said. “But the truth is that not everybody does.”

LFS has even moved to telephone calls for some clients if they don’t have internet service. He said the telehealth option expands what providers can do and what clients can receive.

“For our consumers, they don't have to be limited to the availability of providers who live in their community,” Greenwell. “Rather, it opens up options for them to look outside of their immediate community or manage wait lists within their community and really expand their options a little bit.”

Greenwell said 88 out of 93 counties in Nebraska have a primary, specialty or behavioral health provider shortage. The coronavirus pandemic has shown what telehealth services can do in rural parts of Nebraska.

“As a therapist working via telehealth, I can see a client who lives in Omaha one hour and the very next hour I can see a client who lives in North Platte or Scottsbluff,” Greenwell said.

Greenwell said the face-to-face meetings are important and will still play a central role in what LFS does. Some of the treatment changes self-isolation has caused could be implemented long-term. Greenwell thinks for some people, the convenience of telehealth will work for them in the future, after the pandemic. For others, it might open up opportunities to access care for the first time.