On Tuesday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices voted on their initial COVID-19 vaccine distribution recommendations. As written, it is unclear if behavioral health providers and organizations are included under the panel’s recommended Phase 1 vaccination category.
In response, the National Council for Behavioral Health, along with the National Association of State Mental Health Program Directors (NASMHPD) and the Mental Health Corporations of America (MHCA) sent a letter to U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Alex Azar; CDC Director Robert Redfield, MD; and Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices Chair José Romero, MD, FAAP, calling for mental health and substance use providers to be included as essential frontline providers. The panel’s recommendations, if approved by the Director, will become official CDC guidance to the states.
Chuck Ingoglia, National Council for Behavioral Health president and CEO, released the following statement on the letter to Director Redfield, Secretary Azar and Dr. Romero:
“The life-saving treatments and services community behavioral health organizations provide are essential. Beginning in March, we sounded the alarm regarding the urgent need to prioritize support for behavioral health providers and organizations, both to properly protect staff and patients from COVID-19 and to address the pandemic-driven increase in demand for mental health and substance use disorder treatment.
“While there is light at the end of the tunnel with the development of vaccines, we still face difficult weeks and months ahead. Congressional reports, the CDC, surveys of providers and communities – every indicator we have – shows our country is facing a mental health and substance use disorder crisis.
“Much of the care provided by mental health and substance use disorder providers and organizations is provided in person on a routine basis. If we are to continue successfully providing vital and life-saving access to mental health and addiction treatment, behavioral health providers and organizations – especially residential treatment facilities – we must have uninhibited access to testing support, the funding necessary to meet increased demand and Phase I vaccine distribution. Behavioral health care workers are on the front lines. So we can’t be forced to stand at the back of the line while other essential workers receive vaccines.”
The joint letter also comes on the heels of a newly published report from Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), Congresswoman Carolyn B. Maloney (D-N.Y.) and Congresswoman Katie Porter (D-Calif.) that recommends additional federal support to better protect patients and staff in behavioral health facilities from COVID-19 through increased investment in personal protective equipment (PPE), testing supplies and test processing capacity, as well as additional funding to address the increased costs of providing essential care.