The COVID-19 pandemic amplified many issues in our lives, both personal and professional. As Americans struggled to adapt to a very unusual and unknown new normal, many people found themselves facing mental health crises. Employers rushed to expand mental health care benefits to their employees and families, but often ran head-first into outdated public policies keeping them from offering essential care.
There is good news. We can modernize these policies and ensure those who need care receive it now and in the future. All it takes is quick and decisive action from Congress.
Straightforward updates to laws and regulations can make affordable, quality mental health care accessible to all Americans. This is the message that comes across loud and clear in The ERISA Industry Committee’s new report on mental health care — innovative solutions from America’s largest employers that detail how Congress can prioritize Americans’ mental health now.
For example, new telehealth laws can open up access to mental health providers. Experts believe that telepsychiatry works just as well as traditional, in-person therapy by conveniently connecting anyone with care from anywhere. So why aren’t we using it to help millions of Americans who have limited access to mental health providers? Why are some patients prohibited from getting a prescription or other services from a practitioner they consult with online?
The answer to both questions is a patchwork of state laws that is harming patients. Today’s state licensing requirements mean that a psychologist in Chicago with appointment availability cannot treat patients in Billings, Montana, where nearly all residents live in a designated mental health care provider shortage area.
By the same token, we know that every obstacle someone encounters on the way to receiving mental health care reduces the likelihood they’ll seek treatment. Why then do we force patients to call provider after provider on their health plan network list, only to be repeatedly turned away? It would be simple for Congress to require mental health practitioners to click a toggle button in an online directory to indicate whether they are accepting new patients and save patients from needless frustration.
We also know that behavioral health care is expensive, costing $65 to $250 per hour, on average, and many families cannot afford these prices. Why then do we insist on having workers who are enrolled in high deductible health plans spend thousands of dollars out of pocket before any insurance coverage kicks in, rather than allowing their employers to defray these costs? Why do we typically bar part-time employees and others who don’t participate in a company health plan from receiving standalone telehealth benefits?
You might be surprised to learn that federal law generally prevents employers from taking these and other steps to lower families’ costs so they can obtain care. When several rules were suspended temporarily during the pandemic, including requiring patients with high deductible health plans to pay for telehealth visits, employers across the country rushed to expand treatment options. This made a bad situation better in the short term. Congress can act now to make these changes permanent and provide a long-term resolution.
Our report identifies even more ways to improve mental health care and substance use disorder treatment over the long run, including encouraging more professionals to enter mental health care fields and researching the long-term impacts of COVID-19. These improvements would ensure that people are better prepared for any future emergencies they may encounter.
What’s most important for Americans to know, however, is there are actions federal lawmakers can take almost immediately to improve the ability to obtain mental health care and substance use disorder treatment. Lawmakers have an added incentive to adopt many of the common sense, bipartisan solutions ERIC recommends because the actions would reduce costs for patients and increase savings for the federal government.
That leaves only one remaining question: If workable, affordable solutions to America’s mental health crisis exist, what’s stopping policymakers from taking action? I can’t say for sure, but I do know with certainty that there is no better time for Congress to act than right now.
Annette Guarisco Fildes is president and CEO of The ERISA Industry Committee (ERIC) in Washington, D.C.
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