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University executes behavioral science ideals of executive order

Last week, President Barack Obama, via executive order, 
indicated his goal for federal agencies to utilize behavioral science research to a larger extent when developing new policies 
and programs.

“To more fully realize the benefits of behavioral insights and deliver better results at a lower cost for the American people, the Federal Government should design its policies and programs to reflect our best understanding of how people engage with, participate in, use and respond to those policies and programs,” the executive order states.

UNM Department of Psychiatry Chair Mauricio Tohen said one federal policy that has been strengthened by the incorporation of behavior science research is health insurance, specifically for Medicaid policy.

The Affordable Care Act, which was implemented in 2010, made it illegal for insurance companies to refuse to cover behavioral health issues, which Tohen said were being ignored by insurance companies before.

Tohen said UNM understands the importance of not only behavior science research, but behavioral health providers in the local community. As a result, UNM is working diligently to improve access to these services across the state.

“Up to 30 percent of individuals in the country have some kind of behavioral care condition that could be anything from addiction to...a severe mental illness,” Tohen said. “In terms of treating the mentally ill, we need a diversity 
of skills.”

Tohen said each UNM medical program has three initiatives: clinical care, education and research.

However, due in large part to the fact that the Department of Psychiatry is the only one in the state, they have a fourth mission: involvement outside of UNM, which Tohen said is vital to bringing more attention to 
mental illness.

“We very much embrace community involvement in behavioral care as mentioned in the executive order,” Tohen said. “Part of the community engagement is education of the public, because we know that the outcome of the mentally ill improves when there is an educated community.”

Tohen said UNM is working with the city and county to improve those health services, including working with police on how to deal with citizens who may have mental health disorders and implementing a citywide behavior care system, with UNM as a unique services provider.

In the executive order, Obama cited retirement plans and financial accessibility of college as two things that have been much improved thanks to a focus on behavioral health.

He stated he would like executive departments to “identify policies, programs and operations where applying behavioral science insights may yield substantial improvements in the public welfare, program outcomes and program cost-effectiveness.”

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UNM President Bob Frank cited the British government’s focus on behavior health studies to promote healthy lifestyles, and said it’s logical for the U.S. government to follow suit.

“It makes sense for President Obama to adapt psychological 
science to encourage people 
to make small or simple behavior changes, such as enrolling 
in programs or filling out forms, 
so we can get a much more complete pictures of our citizenry,” Frank said.

David Lynch is the news editor at the Daily Lobo. He can be reached at or on Twitter @RealDavidLynch.


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