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Behavioral health company bridges local gaps

Mark Parker

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An Army combat veteran's telehealth company recently launched services throughout the area. Photo: TSgt. Nadine Y. Barclay, USAF.

Nearly 170,000 veterans reside in Hillsborough and Pinellas Counties, and many lack access to much-needed behavioral health care.

U.S. Army combat veteran Paul Kim, founder of California-based Sensible Care, hopes to fill those gaps. The teletherapy provider, accepted by TRICARE military-issued insurance, launched operations in Tampa Bay earlier this month.

According to the Florida Hospital Association, the state averages one mental health professional for every 550 patients. In addition, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration reports that over half of veterans with behavioral health conditions did not receive treatment in the last year.

“Access to care is bad outside of the military,” Kim said. “It’s really bad in the military. Therapists just don’t want to participate in the military insurance program.”

Paul Kim, founder and CEO of Sensible Care.

As someone who has struggled with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) following his tours in Iraq, Kim understands those barriers. He also realizes the stigma surrounding seeking help.

That led him to open a brick-and-mortar mental health practice in 2017 with a physician who also served in the military. Kim began building a telehealth platform as Covid reached the nation, and launched the patient portal as California’s governor implemented the state’s first lockdown.

While Sensible Care still operates clinics in California, Kim and his cofounder found that telehealth “opens the doors” to treat people and recruit clinicians nationwide. While the company will accept any patients, Kim prioritizes servicemembers.

“We wanted to address the severe shortage with the military population,” he added. “And Tampa has one of the most significant military bases in the country. MacDill Air Force Base – they’re sort of the tip of the spear for a lot of operations around the world.”

Over 12,000 active-duty service members and 7,000 civilians live on the South Tampa base, which also houses U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) and U.S. Special Forces Command (SOCOM).

The Florida Department of Veterans Affairs reports that nearly 1.5 million veterans reside in the state, the third-most in the nation. California places first with 1.62 million, followed by Texas with 1.56 million former service members.

Kim expanded Sensible Care’s coverage to Texas following its pandemic success in California. He now looks forward to helping a demographic exponentially more likely to suffer from mental health issues in the Sunshine State.

Studies have shown that “major depression” rates are five times higher among soldiers, who are also 15 times more likely than civilians to suffer from PTSD. Between two to three million U.S. military personnel have deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan since 2001, and about 20% of those who return reported traumatic brain injuries.

“To be able to help that population is very meaningful, just because of my military background,” Kim said. “I was an infantryman in the Army, and the fact that I don’t have to make it so obvious that I need to go to an appointment somewhere is hugely beneficial.

“The Army culture – it’s all about being strong and working through things … so, maybe it (telehealth) helps you maintain that persona.”

While he noted that military culture is becoming more accepting of mental health care, he believes virtual therapy’s privacy and time-saving aspects will increase participation.

Alana Rogers, a Sensible Care therapist serving St. Petersburg, agreed.

She said walking into a clinic provokes anxiety in many people and becomes an impediment. Rogers believes telehealth provides a valuable option for those needing mental health services, especially among underserved demographics.

“I’m very familiar with the area, and I’m very interested to learn more about the needs of the population,” she added.

Insurance acceptance is another barrier. Kim said that is due to outdated TRICARE directories and waiting lists and clinicians assuming veterans are more challenging to treat – “which is totally fair.”

He added that many of Sensible Care’s therapists made the same assumptions before realizing how meaningful and satisfying it is to help that population.

Kim said company officials establish referral systems in operational areas and provide resources to those with acute needs outside the company’s scope. He also noted that Sensible Care serves military family members and dependents.

Kim called the appointment process a “far cry” from searching through a TRICARE directory, calling several providers “and hoping to get lucky.”

“That’s the problem we set out to fix,” Kim said. “We take TRICARE, we’re in network and we’re not going to play games with you.”

He said people hesitant to seek care should not consider themselves “broken.” He encouraged them to treat mental health as a muscle that needs strengthening over time to increase resilience to life’s challenges.

Rogers believes people increasingly realize physical and mental health intertwine and are equally important to living a long and fulfilling life. She encourages people to call or schedule a video session and decide the best course.

“If it’s not the right fit, keep searching,” she said. “We’re really just here to help with that first step and to help you feel better – and to help the loved ones in your life, as well.”

 

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