May 25, 2012

Future Developments in Behavioral Health Care

Recent survey results indicate that as many as 24 million Americans may need mental health treatment but are not getting it. Some of the reasons for this are cost, lack of insurance, stigma, and not understanding what behavioral insurance covers. Although the stigma associated with mental health care is fading, some individuals are still concerned that employers, coworkers, or friends will think less of them for seeing a therapist. Others are skeptical that therapy is effective and actually solves problems. And some people simply cannot find, or do not know how to find a therapist who works well with them.
The costs for not accessing needed behavioral treatment are many. Depression can complicate a patient's recovery from a major illness. Patients with chronic or serious mental illnesses who do not have appropriate outpatient care can bounce in and out of inpatient facilities, while families and patients suffer from poor outcomes and mounting insurance bills. Finally, lack of care can lead to the most serious outcome possible: death of the patient through suicide.

Broadening Care Access

Radical new approaches to reaching those in need of mental health care are needed—and fortunately, are either in development or in use already. They include:
  • Proactive disease management programs that operate on several fronts: working with employers to reach out to employees through the workplace, and with health plans to identify patients taking psychotropic medications who need additional support; and reaching out to patients with other diseases like diabetes or cardiac conditions who may also suffer from mental illness.
  • Outreach to people who want treatment but do not know how to access it or to find a therapist who is best for them. One's choice of a psychotherapist is primarily impacted by a physician's recommendation, the health plan network, and the location of the clinician's office. Offering information about clinicians online, even identifying those within a network with specializations or a track record of producing the best outcomes, can help people make more informed choices. Just as health plans publish physician "report cards" to educate consumers, so psychotherapist report cards might help people choose the best therapist for their needs.
  • New ways of delivering therapy that are more accessible and cost effective. For example, patients with mild to moderate levels of distress can benefit from a "coach" who offers counseling over the telephone or via the Internet. The Internet can also play an important role in promoting compliance with treatment, and augment other treatment offerings.


One of the challenges of managed behavioral healthcare organizations is the ability to demonstrate to purchasers that the benefits they deliver result in increased workplace productivity. Studies of this type are usually collaborative efforts between an employer group and MBHO, and results are often skewed by nuances of the individual group. In 2003, PacifiCare Behavioral Health, a leading national managed behavioral health care organization, reported the results of a four-year study of nearly 20,000 of its members in behavioral treatment representing multiple employer groups and health plans across the country. By measuring the degree of work impairment through a patient survey tool administered in clinicians' offices at the beginning and at multiple points during psychotherapy, the MBHO was able to track patient improvement. Five questions on the survey assessed degrees of work impairment. The MBHO found that 31 percent of people accessing behavioral services met criteria for being work impaired—meaning their day-to-day functioning was impaired. After only three weeks of treatment, the percentage of work-impaired patients dropped to 18 percent, and after nine weeks, it dropped to 15 percent. Generally, patients who still appear work-impaired after a few months of treatment are those with chronic behavioral health conditions that need more intensive services with careful monitoring and typically are enrolled in a disease management program.
If an employer knew that nearly one-third of its employees accessing its behavioral health benefits were work-impaired, that employer would undoubtedly see treatment as a worthwhile investment if half of those starting treatment work-impaired are able to return to nonimpaired status. U.S. employers report that they suffer $24 billion a year in losses due to absenteeism and presenteeism (working, but not functioning at full capacity) from depression in the workforce, while the cost of substance use disorders is estimated at $100 billion. If these costs can be reduced substantially with treatment, then behavioral health care services would rank as one of the most worthwhile investments an organization's management can make.


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