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This is the last newsletter before Utah has a new unified health agency; The Department of Health and Human Services is due to begin work on July 1.

Read more about the upcoming merger below, how local health departments should have more influence on how their funding is allocated, a conversation with the CEO of Valley Behavioral Health, and new data on teen mental health in Utah.

Thanks, as always, for reading!

Eli Kirshbaum
Status of reforms

1. Local Health Department Leaders Call for Greater Financial Independence

Local health departments need more say in how local, state and federal money is used to fund their activities, according to numerous local health leaders. At a recent meeting of the Interim Committee on Health and Human Services, supporters urged lawmakers to change the way local health departments are funded so that each jurisdiction can manage its funding according to its specific needs.

Local funding is regulated by county commissioners and is thus subject to change based on elections. Stakeholders say this funding structure is also getting more complex in health departments that oversee more than one county. An audit Utah Management Committee— which manages the federal funding that Utah receives — found it lacked transparency and recommended greater collaboration with UDOH and local health departments. “We don’t often feel like we have a say in what we do,” said Gina Woten, senior vice president of the Utah Association of Counties.

2. Q&A: CEO of Valley Behavioral Health on the state of the BiH workforce

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the number one problem facing mental health care in Utah today is a shortage of workers. Jared Sanford, President and CEO of Valley Behavioral Health. In this Q&A, Sanford discusses how BH’s workforce shortage is becoming especially challenging with the increased demand for BH services in the wake of the pandemic.

Sanford says this has forced his institution to turn away many patients. “You never want to see people fall through cracks, but I worry that people who need help may not find it quickly and just give up,” he said. While he believes there is no “silver bullet” to the problem, Sanford says potential solutions include higher wages and better benefits for BH providers, dedicated self-service time, and a more efficient BH provider recruitment system.

3. What they watch: Stephen Foxley, Regence BlueCross BlueShield from Utah

The end of a public health emergency (PHE) poses a risk to those who received Medicaid coverage throughout the pandemic but may not be eligible when re-determinations begin again. Stephen Foxleydirector of government relations at Regence BlueCross BlueShield, Utah, discussed with us Regence’s efforts to create a smooth transition for Medicaid members who may no longer be eligible for market or insurance coverage from their employer.

Foxley said Regence is working to coordinate with key stakeholders across the health care plan and coverage space to share meaningful data and gain a redefinition edge to ensure a smooth transition from Medicaid. “There is still a lot of work to be done, but I think we want to make sure we coordinate with the Department of Health – soon to become the Department of Health and Human Services – other ACOs and vendor partners to make sure that [conversations around coordinating the redetermination effort] take place,” Foxley said.

4. New DHHS coming to Utah next week.

Utah is approaching what is arguably the most anticipated health policy development in the state: the merger between the Department of Health and the Department of Human Services, due to be completed on July 1st. Joe Dougherty, director of communications for the new Department of Health and Human Services, said the remaining work mainly consists of strengthening intra-agency operational efficiency and ensuring that the department is “legitimately and fully operational.”

Dougherty also said management is finalizing the new DHHS website and internal network for new hires, as well as ensuring that all accounts and payrolls are consolidated under the new unified department. The DHHS Transition Plan notes that work will remain beyond the July 1 implementation date, including the development of a combined IT system, employee culture training, and performance metrics for the new department.

5. In 2021, the needs of adolescents for HD increased, the use of psychoactive substances decreased.

UDOH, DHS and the State Board of Education recently teamed up to release report on the behavioral health status of Utah adolescents, which identified a marked increase in the behavioral health needs of the population in 2021. In a report that uses data SPICYA recent Prevention Needs Assessment study found that adolescents in the state had a 6% higher rate of “psychological distressand 5% higher levels of feeling sad or hopeless compared to 2019 levels.

Along with the statistics, the report also revealed a decline in teen substance use in Utah last year. The number of teens who reported vaping more than anything else, 7.8%, represents a 5% decrease from 2019. The number of teens drinking heavily (3.1% in 2021) has dropped by nearly 2% since 2019. Marijuana use, use of drugs that are not prescribed, and cigarette smoking also decreased in 2021.

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