Author: John Jacobi

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Getting Mental Health Coverage Wrong

Thanks to Frank for inviting me to review Barak Richman, Daniel Grossman, and Frank Sloan’s chapter,  Fragmentation in Mental Health Benefits and Services, in Our Fragmented Health Care System: Causes and Solutions (Einer Elhauge, ed. 2010).  The book is important and provocative.  The chapter on the fragmentation of mental health care couldn’t address a more timely issue.

People with serious mental illness, more than most other patients, struggle with health system fragmentation. As the Institute of Medicine described it,

Mental and substance-use (M/SU) problems and illnesses seldom occur in isolation. They frequently accompany each other, as well as a substantial number of general medical illnesses such as heart disease, cancers, diabetes, and neurological illnesses. *** Improving the quality of M/SU health care—and general health care—depends upon the effective collaboration of all mental, substance-use, general health care, and other human service providers in coordinating the care of their patients. *** However, these diverse providers often fail to detect and treat (or refer to other providers to treat) these co-occurring problems and also fail to collaborate in the care of these multiple health conditions—placing their patients’ health and recovery in jeopardy.

By some estimates, formerly institutionalized people with serious mental illness experience about 25 fewer years of life, mostly due to the effects of treatable physical illnesses such as cardiovascular, pulmonary and infectious diseases.  The effects of this health system fragmentation are experienced notwithstanding parity legislation, and they are felt also by people in the community with less serious mental illness, often because their primary care providers can’t find mental health providers to whom they can refer.

In Fragmentation in Mental Health Benefits and Services, the authors approach mental health system fragmentation by telling a story of the relationship between health insurance structure and income redistribution. The authors address the interrelationship between insurance “carve-outs” for mental health care and the growth of mental health parity laws. They assert that the carve out of behavioral health coverage from medical insurance provokes states to pass mental health parity laws. According to the authors, these parity laws fail to help their “intended” beneficiaries, and instead serve to redistribute resources away from low income and non-White employees.

To make their case, they mine a database of claims data for privately insured North Carolina patients. These claims data allow them to track employees’ (and, presumably, their dependents’) use of mental health services. Along the way, they raise several important issues. For example, they suggest that care provided by mental health providers may not be particularly efficacious. (299) Few would disagree that in most areas of health care – including mental health care – comparative effectiveness research is essential.   In addition, they suggest that access to and benefit from covered services varies by income and race. (298-99) It is undoubtedly true that there are class-based and race-based disparities in access to health care; this is so much discussed, in fact, that it somewhat puzzling that the authors would characterize as a “regularly overlooked question” the fact that “equal insurance and access does not translate into equitable consumption.” (279)

On some points, the authors seem to go a bit beyond their data. First, the authors assert (without citation) that mental health parity is “often” pursued “to benefit low-income and traditionally vulnerable populations.” (284) Many advocates (myself included) have argued for parity as a civil rights matter: as people with physical illness have access to insurance coverage, so should people with mental illness.  Certainly, insurance coverage is most valuable for those without the means to pay for care out of pocket, but that is as true for cardiac care as for mental health care. From this perspective, parity legislation seems no more a redistributive move than any other form of health insurance.

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