Georgia program suggests more support for high-risk families may improve health outcomes

Georgia has seen an increase in mental health and substance-use needs during the pandemic, including among young people.

A unique pilot program for some low-income Georgia families struggling with mental health conditions and the risk of losing their children to foster care is reporting improved outcomes.

The Medicaid-related program could soon expand to more people statewide. 

Ohio-based nonprofit managed care organization CareSource launched it for its Georgia network’s families with Medicaid health plans. The company has roughly 500,000 members in the state.

Over the last year, it used members’ health plan-use data and other analytics to identify families who may be most at risk for negative health outcomes and potential family separation through foster care placement. 

Researchers then invited the families to join a voluntary pilot program. And approximately 175 participants signed up.

“And, most of the time, what we find is that children are often separated from mom or dad or the family more times than not because of neglect,” said CareSource Georgia president Jason Bearden. That’s not a healthcare issue. But that separation leads to an acute erosion of the mental health of mom and child.

The pilot program grew out of the pandemic, as the state’s mental health crisis worsened and many Georgians faced additional obstacles to accessing timely treatment.

Bearden said the goal was to test whether better addressing the root causes of families’ mental and physical health crises could prevent them from escalating to possible state intervention.

“That mental health crisis or that crisis within the home leads to lack of attention to medical conditions — diabetes, congestive heart failure, asthma —  really acute episodes of medical conditions because of that child neglect and abuse case being opened,” he said, “because mom didn’t have the resources to pay for child care.”

A comprehensive care team then provides the participants with individualized services, including preventive medical and behavioral health care, counseling and case management.

Organizers say the study group saw ER visits drop by around 20 percent, fewer foster care placements and overall medical cost savings.

Now, the company is planning to expand it to more low-income families statewide with Medicaid through CareSource soon.