Northwell Health, Northport VAMC Collaboration on Behavioral Health Services a Blueprint for National Public-Private Partnerships

Unified Behavioral Health Center Director Mayer Bellehsen looks on as retired Army veteran William Beckenhaupt talks about how the facility has helped his family.

A newly released research report praises the success of the US Department of Veterans’ Affairs’ first-of-a-kind collaboration with Northwell Health to provide behavioral health services to veterans and their families in Bay Shore, NY. Operated jointly by the Northport VA and Northwell, the Unified Behavioral Health Center for Military Veterans and Their Families (UBHC) could serve as a blueprint for the VA to pursue similar public/private partnerships with local health care providers regionally and nationally, Long Island congressional leaders said at a news conference today with veterans and family members who have benefitted from counseling for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and other emotional struggles.

The report by the RAND Corporation, a public-interest research group and global policy think tank, concluded: “Our analyses found that, overall, the UBHC has succeeded in implementing a promising public-private partnership model for providing behavioral health care for veterans and their families in the same facility. Providers coordinated their efforts to provide a higher quality of care, the center ramped up to deliver a wide array of therapeutic services for a large number of patients in a relatively short period, patients reported being happy with the services they received, and their symptoms and functioning improved significantly over time.”

Opened in 2012, Northwell staff at the UBHC has treated 96 veterans and 300 family members, while VA staff at the center has treated 2,285 veterans through 14,700 patient encounters. The UBHC has served as a valuable resource for veterans trying to make a successful and healthy transition back to civilian life, as well as their spouses, children and other family members.

“The success of this partnership is a testament to what we can accomplish when the public and private sectors work together to take on big problems,” said US Rep. Kathleen Rice, a member of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee. “The partnership between the VA and Northwell Health has led to many veterans on Long Island getting high quality care in a short amount of time, and those are exactly the kind of results we want to see throughout the entire VA health care system. This model clearly has the potential to revolutionize the way we coordinate treatment for veterans and provide critical care and support to their families, and I look forward to finding ways to replicate this success throughout our region and across the country.”

US Rep. Peter King, a member of the House Committee on Homeland Security, called the collaboration an innovative model. “The unique collaboration between Northwell Health and the Northport VA has provided veterans and their families on Long Island with the specialized care needed to help heal PTSD and other service connected mental trauma,” said Rep. King. “I am confident other facilities will follow UBHC’s example to bring this innovative model of care to as many veterans and families as possible.”

Philip C. Moschitta, director of the Northport VA Medical Center and a strong advocate for this initiative, said he is "pleased with the RAND report regarding this successful public/private        partnership on behalf of Long Island's veterans and their families." He added that "both the unique and collaborative efforts of Northwell and Northport VA providers in Bay Shore speak volumes of a shared commitment to the health and wellness of military families."

At least 20 percent of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans have PTSD and/or depression, according to RAND – a number that counselors claim is much higher when combined with traumatic brain injury (TBI). With a recent VA study showing that roughly 20 US veterans a day commit suicide nationwide, the need for further intervention is undisputed, as is the recognition that PTSD and other combat-related conditions impact not only veterans but their families as well.

“While veterans are eligible for VA services, most of their families are not eligible, leading different members of families to seek care in different settings, with no easy way to exchange information and coordinate care between VA providers and family members’ providers,” noted the RAND report. “The UBHC addresses this barrier by providing care that is co-located and coordinated.”

The UBHC’s goal is to help entire families cope with the emotional stress that can accompany veterans returning home from combat – from both recent tours of duty and the wars of earlier generations. UBHC has the potential to address the barriers to care at VA facilities and provide for the unique needs of veterans’ families, such as the impact of PTSD, RAND researchers concluded in their paper.

“This report offers evidence that our model can be successfully implemented along with guidance for others on steps that they can take if they would like to replicate,” said Mayer Bellehsen, PhD, Northwell Health’s director of the UBHC. “Importantly, this report also supports positive outcomes in care for our veteran families that is a testament to our model of partnership as well as the great efforts by leadership and staff involved in this project.”

At a news conference today at the UBHC, US Army veteran William Beckenhaupt, 32, of East Moriches, discussed the benefits of care he and his family have received from the UBHC. He was diagnosed with PTSD two years after leaving the military, which included a tour of duty in Iraq with the Army’s 82nd Airborne Division. He began to receive treatment for this disorder through the VA that proved very helpful, but realized that his family needed support as well. Therapists at UBHC began seeing both Mr. Beckenhaupt and his wife, Gayle, earlier this year. According to Mr. Beckenhaupt, the family is thriving.

President Obama called for public-private partnerships to help the military community by signing a series of executive actions in 2012, including efforts meant to give veterans better access to mental health care. The RAND report shows that the Northwell-Northport VA program is one way forward.

New York State is home to the fourth-largest population of veterans in the US. About half of their spouses reported difficulties in dealing with behavioral health issues tied to their loved one’s military service, a separate 2011 report found.

The UBHC focuses on structured communication to ensure the highest level of family-oriented outcomes. The Bay Shore facility consists of two divisions: Northwell provides behavioral health care for veterans and their families while Northport VA staff provides both mental health and primary care services for the veterans. The divisions are connected through a shared conference room, where clinicians from both organizations work together to provide the optimum benefit to our veterans and their families.

The Northwell-Northport VA collaboration resulted in a higher quality of care for patients while addressing potential barriers to helping veteran families, according to RAND, which provides public policy solutions that impact people in security, health, education, sustainability and development. “Family members we spoke with expressed that the UBHC plays a vital role in their community, citing that, in their experience, providers not affiliated with the VA are not sensitive to the impact of PTSD and other special issues facing veterans’ families,” said the report. “Family members we interviewed saw the UBHC as a unique place where military families could receive care and be understood.”

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The Unified Behavioral Health Center for Military Veterans and their Families is located at 132 East Main Street in Bay Shore. To make an appointment, call 631-647-2530. To learn more about the program, click here.