Senior woman looking out of window with a cup

Bipartisan leaders of the Senate Special Committee on Aging introduced legislation Thursday that would make it easier for seniors to receive care for mental health and substance abuse. The Advancing Integration in Medicare and Medicaid Act helps states and the federal government coordinate and pay for mental health care for seniors who receive benefits through both Medicare and Medicaid.

Co-sponsors Sen. Bob Casey (D-PA) and Tim Scott (R-SC) announced the legislation at a Thursday hearing in Washington about the growing mental health crisis among seniors. Casey said  people 85 and older have the highest suicide rate in the nation —  a problem that has worsened during the COVID-19 pandemic because of increased social isolation.

“Many seniors are in pain and struggling to find help,” Casey said during the hearing. 

Mental health experts testifying at the hearing painted a picture of a fragmented system that separates healthcare from mental healthcare. Erin Emery-Tiburcio, co-director of Chicago’s Rush Center for Excellence in Aging, said seniors with mental health and substance abuse issues are more likely to have chronic medical conditions, use multiple medications and use multiple healthcare providers across a number of community-based organizations.

“All of this puts them at risk of falling into the chasm of a fragmented health system,” Emery-Tiburcio said. “Providing reimbursement for care coordination across health systems and across community-based organizations for older adults is not only critical for equitable care, but has been shown to reduce costs, particularly for those that are dually eligible for Medicare and Medicaid.” 

The director of the South Carolina Department of Mental Health said mental health services often aren’t available in the same location as medical services, requiring seniors to travel to multiple locations to access the help they need.

“Each additional visit increases the likelihood that they will not obtain services and will drop out of services,” Kenneth Rogers, M.D., said.