March Policy & Advocacy Update

A New Vision for Behavioral Health in the United States

It’s hard to imagine a day going by anymore without the topic of mental health coming up whether it’s in the news or during discussions at kitchen tables across the US. Countless have been devastated in many ways during this pandemic but mental health tragically has taken its greatest hit. It is completely understood that making this statement is no great revelation. However, until we all begin to see “a new vision for behavioral health” unfolding and one that incorporates evidence-based and promising practices with sufficient payment models, the human suffering will inevitably get worse.

Payment models in both commercial insurance and the public funding, provided by Medicaid and Medicare, are stepping up to ensure all have access to life-saving care. Mental health parity laws calling for insurance companies to provide coverage for mental health services on par with physical health, go back to 1996 with a major improvement to the law coming in 2008. Mental health parity laws also require that insurers cannot impose financial requirements or treatment limitations on mental health care that exceed those on physical care services. Recently, a report issued by the departments of Labor, Health and Human Services, and Treasury found that many insurers are failing to do what the law calls for. This report has been issued to Congress.

Researchers from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report that the proportion of pediatric emergency department visits for mental health conditions (MHCs) increased during 2020. Details can be found in the report Pediatric Emergency Department Visits Associated with Mental Health Conditions Before and During the COVID-19 Pandemic — United States, January 2019–January 2022.

The New York Times ran a story last year about emergency room visits following suspected suicide attempts rising among teenage girls during the pandemic.

It’s also been widely reported that drug overdose deaths have doubled over the past six years, soaring in recent months, and have climbed to over 100,000 during a 12 month period ending in April 2021. That number bears repeating. Over 100,000 of our brothers, sisters, parents, children, colleagues, and friends lost their lives to a drug overdose in one year. Having been a provider in the substance use disorder treatment field since 1986, I remember being astonished only a few years back when this number exceeded 60,000 in one year! Let’s not forget that we were amidst an opioid epidemic even before the pandemic started. People who suffer from substance use disorders do not do well in isolation.

Hundreds of articles, concerning the devastation to individuals, families, and communities that is ongoing today, caused by this pandemic, can be posted. However, the vast majority of Americans get this reality, that would not be necessary. Even as the cases, hospitalizations, and deaths drop rapidly, the mental health of so many has been forever altered. The problems of a psychological nature will linger for long after the pandemic is officially declared over.

But we are resilient people. We have always risen to the occasion and taken on challenges throughout the course of our history.

We can have “A new vision for behavioral health in the United States.” However, this will take a public and private partnership that we have not seen before.

  • We can increase funding for human and social service providers nationwide.
  • We can expand parity so that people suffering from mental illness are not discriminated against.
  • We can improve access to vital services for children and young people and let’s start with the schools.
  • We can expand the use of technology to ensure that people can access care equitably.
  • We can redesign systems of care that prioritize diversity, equity, and inclusion.
  • We can strengthen the workforce necessary to meet the rapidly escalating need for services.

View more policy & advocacy updates on the AIHI Blog