State of Mental Health Services in the Time of Pandemic

The U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) investigated the state of mental and behavioral health services during the COVID19 pandemic restrictions. While there have already been long-standing concerns about the parity of mental/behavioral and somatic services adopted by insurers, the current situation highlighted declining access to mental health. The federal data review yielded conclusions that attribute lack of services to lack of available qualified practitioners, particularly in low-income areas, as well as issues with provider reimbursement rates. Oregon is one of the states having problems with meeting the need for behavioral health. 

GAO’s reported finding of the National Council for Behavioral Health (NCBH):In a February 2021 survey of its members, NCBH found that in the 3 months preceding the survey, about two-thirds of the member organizations surveyed reported demand for their services increasing and having to cancel or reschedule patient appointments or turn patients away. The survey also found that during the pandemic, 27 percent of member organizations reported laying off employees, 45 percent reported closing some programs, and 35 percent decreased the hours for staff.” 

In the meantime, GAO quotes the following facts: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention surveys found that the number of respondents reporting symptoms of anxiety or depression in the period April 2020 to February 2021 more than tripled from the same time in 2019. Emergency Room visits in the period mid-March to mid-October related to overdose and suicide attempts increased by 36% and 26% respectively from 2019. 

The GAO report was requested by Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden, who took special interest in mental health for personal reasons. “Part of this is making sure that vulnerable Americans know that somebody is on their side,” he said. 

In December, Congress passed legislation which, among other issues, addressed a measure requiring insurers to analyze their coverage and provide their findings to state and federal officials upon request. At least 20 health plans which were suspected to violate mental health parity laws were to be investigated, reports Kaiser Health News. Unfortunately, there was no indication that the analysis may be performed by a government or an independent entity. 

By Joanna Rosińska