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June 2, 2020 - 4:01pm

Riding the wave: County Mental Health department embraces telehealth services

Moved to the forefront by COVID-19, telehealth is the wave of the future for Genesee County Mental Health & Community Services, the agency’s director said on Monday.

Speaking at the County Legislature’s Human Services Committee Zoom videoconferencing meeting, Lynda Battaglia said her employees “love the fact that we can offer telehealth” as she presented a departmental review.

Legislators commended Battaglia, who was hired about eight months ago, for turning around a department that had been in disarray.

“Lynda came in at a very difficult time and has done a wonderful job,” Legislator Gordon Dibble said. “I know I speak on behalf of the board (when I say) that she’s done a great job under very difficult circumstances.”

Battaglia acknowledged that the agency has faced some turmoil over the past year, but pointed out that the “level of service that has been provided to the clients never wavered. (That) really speaks to the quality of professionals that we have in the agency.”

She was hired after her predecessor, Ellery Reaves, departed and was replaced on an interim basis by Mark O’Brien, the former Orleans County Mental Health director who since has moved on to become commissioner of mental health in Erie County.

Before taking the Genesee County position, Battaglia served as the forensic unit chief at Attica Correctional Facility and as assistant outpatient coordinator for New York’s Western Region.

In her PowerPoint presentation, Battaglia outlined a serious of mistakes and oversights that beset the department, calling the last year “a roller coaster for GC Mental Health.”

She was quick to mention that services have continued without interruption, even in the face of the coronavirus, and has set the department on a progressive course that includes telehealth, implementation of enhanced safety measures and cross-training of billing clerks.

“Agencies are always going to have a couple outliers that question things, but for the most part the group of people at Mental Health wants to progress with changes, they’re excited for the changes (and) they love the fact that we can offer telehealth,” she stated. “We have some big plans moving forward.”

Battaglia outlined that telehealth was “the only potential solution” after the agency lost its on-site psychiatrist, leaving hundreds of clients needing a provider and increasing the wait time to see a doctor to nearly a year.

In its broadest definition, telehealth allows long-distance patient and clinician contact, care, advice, reminders, education, intervention, monitoring, and remote admissions.

On March 5, the state Office of Mental Health approved the county’s application to use telehealth for psychiatric services. As a result, the wait time has been reduced significantly, she said, and the department has been able to add to its client base by providing another method of treatment.

Battaglia said that the OMH office is approving expanded telehealth services for all clinical staff and mentioned that Genesee County is applying for grants to sustain these services.

On the subject of safety, she said Mental Health has “come up to speed where DSS (Department of Social Services) was in regards to workplace safety.”

She said the department contracted with a company called Securemedy to institute numerous facility, group and personal safety measures, such as conducting rounds daily, having an on-site supervisor to intervene with immediate issues, improving communication and security checks, and making sure all posts are guarded.

The agency has seen a 13-percent increase in the average of monthly services for billing over the first four months of 2020, Battaglia said, attributing that to a streamlined billing process along with a “high demand” for services at this point in time.

“One of our missions is to decrease the cost to our county, and one way to do that is by getting the billing folks together and having them cross-train now that we have our new electronic medical records going live on July 1,” she explained. “It’s really going to mainstream how we conduct billing … We’re going with a clearing house, which is going to be great.”

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Correction: Mark O'Brien left his position with Orleans County Mental Health to become the commissioner of mental health in Erie County. Information provided to The Batavian indicated that he had retired.

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