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The Importance of Better Behavioral Health Networks

Michael Gardner, Chief Strategy Officer, Virsys12

Currently, there are more than 155 million Americans living in designated Mental Health Professional Shortage Areas according to the Department of Health and Human Services. With more than 50 million Americans experiencing mental illness, according to Mental Health America, this means many who live with depression, anxiety, and a number of other issues do not have access to the resources they need.

When un- or undertreated, mental illnesses can lead to increased disability claims, missed experiences, premature death and even suicide.

It’s a problem that needs a solution. Thankfully, recent legislation and federal investments have been made in pursuit of better support and resources for those suffering from mental illness and depression.

It all starts with better behavioral health networks, but what do better behavioral health networks look like?

Larger Provider Networks

The growing Mental Health Professional Shortage Areas, caused by above-average age and below-average salaries among mental health professionals, make it increasingly difficult for healthcare plans to provide their members with adequate coverage.

With the lack of overall providers, health plans are working to increase access by adding in-network providers.

In fact, according to a recent AHIP survey, the number of in-network behavioral health providers increased by 48% in the last three years among commercial health plans.

As providers must be trained and recruited to this important field, telehealth services can help to ease the burden in the interim. While post-pandemic telemedicine has returned to a lower rate of 5% overall, mental health services have remained high – a rate of 40% according to the Kaiser Family Foundation.

This ability to access remote care eases the burden for those living in shortage areas who would need to travel to receive the care that they need. There are benefits for providers as well, including reduced burnout caused by long commutes and access to a more specialized subset of patients.

Increased Access to Existing Providers

Beyond the overall and in-network provider shortages, there is the added complication of finding and accessing these mental health professionals. Providers may have a long wait list for new patients, and some health plan directories can make it especially difficult to determine what providers are in-network.

This lack of access can cause patients to grow tired of waiting – traveling long distances and paying the high out-of-pocket costs for out of network care which often results in frustrated members.

Or worse, they might give up seeking care altogether.

Provider Network Management Solutions help health plans to build, maintain and organize their provider data. With complex networks, added government mandates and calls to improve efficiencies, benefits coverage and satisfaction benchmarks, while also reducing operations costs, automated network management solutions enable these outcomes with minimal internal efforts. This accurate and up-to-date provider directory information also removes a key barrier to accessing mental health care.

Cross-Industry Collaboration

Building better behavioral health networks requires a concerted effort from everyone if we are to remove the barriers to receiving the much-needed care.

State and federal governments must increase funding for mental health professional trainings. Medical programs must increase their number of residency spots. Health plans must continue to increase numbers of in-network providers and their diversity.

Beyond adding more in-network providers, it will also require accurate, up-to-date provider directories. These directories make it easier for those struggling with their mental health to find in-network providers they can access through their health plan without adding further stress.

Without one of these pieces, we cannot ensure the access Americans need, expect and deserve.

Progress is being made.

78% of health plans have increased their reimbursement rates for behavioral health providers, and 83% are recruiting diverse providers. 2020 legislation increased the number of Medicare-supported psychiatry residency spots for the first time in decades, according to the Association of American Medical Colleges.

While America’s mental health crisis will not be solved overnight, it is crucial we maximize our efforts. Through provider network management solutions, providers and health plans enable automated and efficient processes which provide payers and patients with real-time, accurate provider data. For health plans who are adding new providers, this shortens and streamlines the onboarding process as well by automating credentialing and contracting as well.

By enabling accurate provider directories, technology provides further improvements and ease of access to the resources and services members expect from their health plans.

Behavioral health networks are important. They play a key role in providing access to mental health services to the millions of Americans who need them. While these improvements will take substantial time and effort, the healthcare industry has and must continue to work together to increase providers and simplify access to existing care options while the next generation of providers is being trained.

Through collaborating on creative solutions, we can fill the gaps and provide much needed mental health care
and resources.