Santa Barbara and SLO County school districts partner with local Medi-Cal insurance plan to increase behavioral wellness programs at school

Photo courtesy of Alexander Jauregui
STUDENT SUPPORTERS: (From left to right) Guadalupe Union’s Outreach Consultant Jennifer Geronimo, Family Services Agency Counselor Daniel Hurtado, and School Psychologist Kayla Anderson will get additional support for student mental health care as the district joined CenCal’s Student Behavioral Health Incentive Program to expand behavioral health services.

Seventeen percent of Guadalupe Union School District’s seventh and eighth graders reported that they considered suicide last year.

“Students did self-reporting, they’re also reporting they are frequently sad most or all of the time,” said Angela Soares, the district’s director of expanded learning and wellness. “Just those numbers show our students are saying, ‘We need help.’” 

Citing the district’s recent results from the California Healthy Kids Survey on student mental health, she said that 26 percent of all students experienced emotional distress and 52 percent of district staff believe mental health-related issues are a huge problem at the district.

Guadalupe Union has counselors on campuses, but there’s currently a waiting list for students to get an appointment. If a student wants outside mental health care, families would have to travel to Santa Maria—which is often a barrier for most families, Soares said. 

“We are in a working-class community; sometimes when the family gets off work to take the student to a counseling session, the agency may be closed,” she said. “To have services and providers in our district and our town, it takes one thing off the families’ plate to be able to get the support they need.” 

To address gaps in the system, Guadalupe Union and eight other districts in Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo counties will partner with CenCal Health—the local Medi-Cal health insurance plan—for the Student Behavioral Health Incentive Program (SBHIP) in order to strengthen the behavioral health infrastructure in public schools, said CenCal’s chief customer experience officer and chief health equity officer Van Do-Reynoso. 

“We will be working with six local education agencies in Santa Barbara County and three in San Luis Obispo County to improve the infrastructure so there’s improved coordination of behavioral health services for students,” Do-Reynoso said. “We’re looking at staffing, infrastructure, and the capacity so students can get the sustainable behavioral health services they are going to need—not just the students but supportive services for families as well.” 

Along with Guadalupe Union, CenCal is partnering with Carpinteria Unified, Cuyama Unified, Lompoc Unified, and Santa Maria-Bonita school districts and the county Office of Education in Santa Barbara County; and Lucia Mar Unified and San Luis Coastal Unified school districts and the county Office of Education in SLO County. 

Created by the California Department of Health Care Services, SBHIP will serve Medi-Cal students from transitional kindergarten through 12th grade and ensure that every child receives behavioral health care.

“It’s specifically focused on Medi-Cal students because we know Medi-Cal students might have more structural barriers to health access than others. This is an effort to build systems that will support Medi-Cal students,” Do-Reynoso said. 

The state Department of Health Care Services allocated $389 million over three years for this program as part of Assembly Bill 133—which strives to establish a more equitable and prevention-focused approach to health care, Do-Reynoso said. For the first two years, CenCal’s nine participants will receive SBHIP dollars and then the districts would bill Medi-Cal, similar to insurance claims. 

“There’s coordination of services, and I think that’s really important. We’re emphasizing [that] SBHIP will impact the students and schools because we are taking an upstream approach by addressing early intervention, by early screening and a referral system,” she said. “We’re acknowledging behavioral health is critical for our youth, and we need to address it for wraparound services so our youth can thrive.” 

SBHIP launched in January 2022 and districts started conducting assessments and focus groups to collect initial data to inform the areas they needed to tackle. 

“The systemic needs we identified were universal screenings, tiered interventions, information for adults, and developing a closed-loop referral system, and … ensuring a medical billing procedure is put in place,” Do-Reynoso said. 

School districts often don’t have money that is earmarked for mental health alone, said Frann Wageneck, co-owner of Flux Coaching and Consulting. Creating this program is a step in the right direction because districts have often had to get creative with their general funds or their Local Control and Accountability Program funding in order to support mental health services at schools.

“Of course it’s not without concerns because there’s a lot of work that goes into building those systems [so] that they serve youth in the right way and don’t overburden people who are already overburdened with responsibilities,” Wageneck said. 

Wageneck worked as an outside consultant to help identify districts with the highest number of students who were eligible for Medi-Cal and later worked with them on an individual basis to help create plans that would address their mental health needs, she said. 

“Santa Maria-Bonita is the largest district in the county; Cuyama Unified has 123 students in grades kindergarten through 12th grade. They are going to have very different plans for how we need to roll out their services and create their programs,” Wageneck said. “That was the beautiful thing of working with each district.”  

All participating districts reported depression and anxiety as the main mental health issues students faced, with substance use disorder as a secondary issue for older students, she said. 

“That’s where the uniqueness of each district comes in. In some areas there really was a need for increasing parental support so we have plan initiatives or interventions focusing … on increasing in family support and education [through] social workers, family advocates, or a promatora to help support not just students at the school but families as well,” Wageneck said. 

Guadalupe Union plans to set up a family navigation team made up of a social worker or promatora that will reach out to families and ensure they are connected to social services, community organizations, and other resources that aren’t solely mental health focused, Guadalupe Union’s Soares said.

Along with a family navigation team, Guadalupe Union will establish universal screenings to help refer students to appropriate care, provide mental health first aid and trauma informed staff training, and expand its behavioral wellness programs, she added. 

“We’re currently in the process of selecting a universal screener that all students will complete, and we’ll have a screener plan in order to refer students to the appropriate interventions they might need,” Soares said. 

As the district looks to expand to more sites—with the recent taxpayer approved junior high school and state- and federal-funded transitional kindergarten learning facility—the district will also add a community school coordinator to coordinate and facilitate the different services throughout the sites, Soares added. The grant will fund the program for the first two years, and Soares said she hopes the insurance billing system, community partnerships and contracts, telehealth counseling services, and other grants will help sustain this program for the long term. 

“In the past, the only providers at the school district that could bill for insurance were only psychologists for special education students,” she said. 

With Medi-Cal’s billing system, Guadalupe Union is able to broaden its early intervention services and provide students the opportunity to get the mental health care they need, Soares said. 

“The more support we bring to them with the least amount of stigma is going to be great,” Soares said. “Having students be able to see [services] on campus rather than getting checked out to go to counseling. It’s on-site and just a part of normal, daily life.”

Reach Staff Writer Taylor O’Connor at [email protected].

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