5 ways employers can increase employee access to mental health benefits

A growing number of employees are living with mental health and substance abuse issues. Some 20% of U.S. adults are diagnosed with a mental illness during their adult lives, and the number of people living with undiagnosed mental illness or substance abuse is projected to be even higher. Minimum mental health screening and substance abuse services are mandated for private and individual medical plans as part of the Affordable Care Act, and some employers offer expanded benefits, however only 41% of people living with mental health issues receive treatment.

The gap between need and treatment has a significant financial impact on both employers and employees. For instance, reduced productivity, absenteeism and presenteeism due to employee depression, anxiety and substance abuse costs employers between $210.5 billion and $225 billion per year, a 21.5% increase from 2005, according to the Center for Workplace Mental Health.

Because mental healthcare benefits and claims can be costly, employers have wondered if the money they’re spending on providing these benefits and services to employees is a good investment. A recent report from the National Alliance of Healthcare Purchaser Coalitions provided an answer. Providing more comprehensive insurance coverage for mental healthcare could return four dollars for every dollar employers spend.

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Although employer-provided health plans include mental health and substance abuse care benefits, there are still a number of barriers that employees face to accessing this care. A study from risk management and healthcare consulting firm Milliman found that one of the biggest hurdles is the lack of in-network providers.

Behavioral healthcare was four to six times more likely to be provided out of network than medical or surgical care, which means many employees must pay for this costly care out of pocket, an expense that makes treatment unaffordable for many. The study also found that insurers paid primary care providers 20% more for the same types of care than they paid addiction and mental health care specialists, including psychiatrists, which leads to more of these providers choosing not to participate in insurance plans.

But there’s good news: Employers can step up to the plate when it comes to increasing employee access to mental health and substance abuse care. Here are five things companies can do.

Provide a path to care. Finding a mental or behavioral healthcare provider can be frustrating in the best of circumstances, but it’s even more challenging and stressful for employees living with depression, anxiety or substance abuse issues. Employers can make this process easier by offering a program that helps connect employees with providers who are in-network, vetted for quality of services and accepting new patients. The program can take many forms, including an employee assistance program (EAP), a nurse or behavioral health provider phone line or a service that connects employees with providers.

Choose insurance plans with robust provider networks. As part of the process of choosing a health insurance provider, employers should examine the extent and make up of the physician network. Look for plans that include an adequate number of behavioral healthcare providers. If there’s a shortfall, talk with the insurer about options to increase the reach of the network.

Train managers and supervisors to be front-line referrers. Educate managers and supervisors so that they can identify potential mental health and substance abuse issues in the workplace. This can provide them with the tools they need to initiate conversations with employees in need and to connect employees with services like EAPs and referral lines.

Offer onsite and online behavioral health resources and support. Provide at-work opportunities for assessment and referrals. To overcome the stigma that surrounds mental health issues, these opportunities can be included as part of a broader wellness and preventive care program or event. When the first steps toward care are easier to access, employees are more likely to seek care. It can also be helpful to provide access to online educational and assessment resources, as well as telehealth options for therapy.

Make sure employees know what programs and benefits are available. It’s important to consistently communicate what benefits and other resources are available to employees and how to access them and to make access as simple as possible. This is also an opportunity to destigmatize mental health and substance abuse issues by emphasizing that mental healthcare is part of care for the whole person and that the employer is committed to helping employees and their families to connect with the services they need to be healthy in every way.

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