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By Paul Gionfriddo, President/CEO, Mental Health America

The best news sometimes comes when we least expect it. And those of us who have been pushing for years for early identification and intervention in schools for kids with mental health concerns got some unexpectedly good news last month.

The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services issued a letter that reversed a long-standing “Free Care” rule

Here’s how the rule used to work. If a school offered health or mental health screenings for free to every student, then it could not seek Medicaid reimbursement for those performed on Medicaid-enrolled children.

Now it can.

That’s a change that will make a difference to countless kids with early-stage mental health conditions, because the letter removes a significant barrier to school-based mental health screening.  Schools can now get paid by Medicaid for screening, even when they offer the service to all children for free. And the letter makes it very clear that even when children are eligible for special education services, Medicaid, not the school district, can pay for these early identification services.

Mental Health America has long advocated for prevention, early identification, early intervention, and services integration to preserve mental health and promote recovery from mental illnesses. This new rule is consistent with that philosophy, and as a result will change the trajectories of young lives.

The challenge now is to get it implemented everywhere. The CMS letter was addressed to all state Medicaid directors, who may or may not be inclined to put some more Medicaid resources into schools with an eye toward preventing bad outcomes and tragedies down the road. However, we think that all schools and school districts should embrace this opportunity to identify children in need of help, and to help get them to the services they need to succeed in school and in life.

This is too good an opportunity to pass up, so let’s make it happen. And it’s great to be able to celebrate some really good news coming from the federal government for all of us who seek to end the practice of waiting for crises before we act, instead of acting #B4Stage4!


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