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Eye On Boise

Optum hearing: ‘They added a ton of people’

Emotions ran high today as Optum Idaho, a contractor with the state Department of Health & Welfare that's managing outpatient behavioral health services under Medicaid, was called before both the House and Senate Health & Welfare committees to respond to major complaints from Idaho care providers that were raised at a joint legislative hearing last week. Company representatives said they're fixing problems including long telephone wait times that providers said potentially put patients' lives at risk. Executives from Optum, a unit of UnitedHealth Group, told lawmakers that average waits for providers seeking approval for services have dropped to under 3 minutes, the AP reports, down the up-to-seven-hour waits that providers complained of last week.

Optum is being paid $10.5 million monthly to administer outpatient Medicaid's behavioral health services as Idaho seeks to control costs, boost efficiency and give incentives to providers to offer appropriate services when needed. Optum vice president Craig Herman apologized for the troubles, conceding they'd hurt Idaho providers' ability to provide services.

House Health & Welfare Chairman Fred Wood, R-Burley, said after the House hearing that the company massively upped its staffing to take the calls. “They added a ton of people,” he said. “Things have gotten a lot better very quickly, with respect to that.” But he predicted more challenges ahead as Idaho tries to transform and upgrade its behavioral health system. “I’ve been in the trenches of health care for almost 40 years in Idaho,” Wood said. “We have absolutely zero system of mental health and substance abuse treatment in the state of Idaho, except a little bit of a rudimentary system in the Treasure Valley. But everywhere else, we have nothing. And … what little bit we have is so fragmented, and the standards of care and the variations of practice are so wide, that it’s just phenomenal. And of course, all that has to change.” That will be a long process, he said.

“I think the hearing went well today,” he said. “I’m glad we got it around the rest of the state. I know that a lot of providers were listening, from Idaho Falls clear up to Sandpoint, so hopefully we’ve gotten some answers and hopefully we’ll get on with fixing the problems.”

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Betsy Z. Russell covers Idaho news from The Spokesman-Review's bureau in Boise.

Named best state-based political blog in Idaho for 2013 by The Fix

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