The North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services (NCDHHS) is working to improve behavioral health for youth across the state, and is using a historic investment of funds from the NC General Assembly “to ensure everyone receives the care they need when and where they need it.”

That’s according to a Wednesday, Jan. 17 press release from state health officials announcing a new initiative –˙the “Children and Families Specialty Plan” — a first of its kind statewide health measure that’s meant  to ensure access to comprehensive physical and mental health care for Medicaid-enrolled children, youth and families that are being served by the child welfare system.

Health and Human Services Secretary Kody Kinsley said the focus of the plan, which will launch later this year, will be on mental health care for kids.

“Too many children are struggling to access the mental health care and support they need to thrive — stuck in cycles of conflict at school, in emergency rooms without access to necessary care and sleeping in child welfare offices,” Kinsley stated in the January 17 press release. “The Children and Family Specialty Plan is a first-of-its-kind innovation and part of our broader strategy to improve youth behavioral health and secure a healthy future for generations of North Carolinians.”

According to the NCDHHS, roughly one in five high school students across the state has seriously considered suicide. That percentage has been increasing over the last decade. That was especially true during the pandemic, when the rate of children discharged from hospital emergency departments with a behavioral health condition increased by as much as 70 percent.

“Nationally,” the press release states, “children and youth in foster care use both inpatient and outpatient mental health services at a rate 15 to 20 times greater than that of the general pediatric population and approximately 60 percent have a chronic medical condition. Without adequate support, these conditions can persist and negatively impact short- and long-term health outcomes into adulthood.”

Susan Osborne, the NCDHHS Deputy Secretary for opportunity and well-being, stated in the press release that the Children and Family Specialty Plan will ensure that children and families with “complex needs” will receive are “better coordinated and consistently delivered” care no matter where they are in the state. From the child welfare system, to schools, to health care settings, the plan’s design will help children and families receive the right services at the right time.”

On the first day that the new health plan launches, tens of thousands of children in the state will be automatically enrolled in services. Those who’ll be automatically enrolled include children in foster care, children receiving adoption assistance, and former foster care youth under the age of 26.

According to the press release, “The plan will cover an array of Medicaid-covered physical and behavioral health benefits regardless of the geographic location or situation the beneficiary is experiencing. This includes all services provided by the Standard Plan as well as most tailored plan services. It also includes a broad range of behavioral health services such as outpatient therapy, inpatient treatment, and crisis and therapeutic residential options for children. Additionally, the Children and Families Specialty Plan will be responsible for addressing unmet health-related resource needs, including housing, food, transportation, and interpersonal violence.”

In addition to the Specialty Plan funding, roughly $209 million in state money will be spent on child and family well-being.  That includes services meant to prevent children from remaining in inappropriate settings such as  emergency departments and DSS offices while providing additional support for the kids and their families.