The federal government is looking to expand access to behavioral health treatment for Medicaid beneficiaries through a new project, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services announced Wednesday.

The “first-of-its-kind” project waives a longstanding payment exclusion for state Medicaid programs and allows them to now treat residents with serious mental illness and/or emotional disturbance in settings that qualify as institutions for mental disease. 

The waiver serves as a “significant step in (the) broader agenda” to expand access to evidence-based treatment for serious mental illness and substance abuse disorder, according to Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar. 

“Americans with serious mental illness too often end up homeless or in our prisons, when access to treatment could help them lead healthy lives,” he said. 

CMS is also providing matching funds to the District of Columbia to offer similar services for beneficiaries diagnosed with opioid use or substance use disorder. Emergency room visits by seniors who’ve misused opioids more than tripled between 2006 and 2014.

“This integrated approach supports the District’s goals of reducing opioid misuse and overdose deaths – while expanding the continuum of mental health and substance use treatment options for individuals in need,” CMS Administrator Seema Verma added.