2020: The year we invest in mental health as health

David Wennberg, MD, MPHCEO of Quartet

Blog | Healthcare | Industry | Jan 14, 2020

As we close out the decade, we should all pause and reflect on the tremendous strides that we’ve made as a health care industry – and as a country – to advance parity in mental health. Insurance companies are recognizing the importance of investing in mental health as a part of total health at higher rates than ever before. Clinicians are looking at the “whole patient” in a way that seemed far-reaching just 10 years ago. And importantly, new generations are proactively talking about their mental health, and in doing so, are further breaking down the long-standing stigma that has constructed many of the barriers we face today.  

Despite the progress, and parity being the ‘law of the land,” we still have a long way to go to achieve true parity in practice. If the first phase of parity focused on reducing the insurance and coverage-related barriers to accessing  mental health care (which still need work), this next phase is about making sure people who need mental health care can actually see high-quality providers in the way that’s best for them. Here’s what we can expect to see in 2020:


  1. Leaders in business, technology, and healthcare will be more open about telling stories of their own mental health care journey.

The conversation about mental health care has evolved, and with it, leaders are speaking out about their experiences with mental health. Cultural leaders like Kevin Love and Prince Harry have used the power of narrative  to shed light on the importance of open and honest dialogues about mental health, including reducing stigma around care. We’ve also seen business leaders like Aetna President Karen Lynch and AdventHealth CEO Daryl Tol show the courage to be vulnerable and share their own stories. Their employees and colleagues will follow suit, and with courage comes change. I know stories like this have encouraged me to share my own story and I hope others will too. 


  1. Medical providers will begin to integrate mental health screenings as a part of standard practice, thereby bringing more patients with mental health conditions into the care continuum.

Nearly one in four people in America have a mental health condition, yet more than half don’t get the treatment or support they need. Next year, we’ll see mental health incorporated into preventive care at unprecedented levels. When health care providers talk with their patients about mental health, patients are better able to get the support they need. Putting mental health first — at scale — will help to ensure people who need mental health care are identified and connected with those resources. As screening practices are adopted, systems and plans will continue to make investments that support medical professionals to connect their patients with the right mental health care. 


  1. At the state level we will see providers, payers, and regulators recognize the value in reimbursing for tele mental health services to support access to care options.

When was the last time you Face-timed or had a video meeting? Probably today. Technology is a commodity, and as an industry, we’ve been talking about telehealth for a decade plus. There is a provider shortage in mental healthcare, and tele can serve as an effective modality to address this shortage, particularly in rural America. Tele mental health is also the preferred modality of treatment for many people.  I feel that the adoption of tele mental health services will be the leading catalyst for the vision of telehealth to become the reality. We are beginning to see leadership, including at the state level, such as the recent signing of a bipartisan bill in Wisconsin expanding Medicaid reimbursement of telehealth services. As we expand coverage and accessibility to meet patients’ needs and preferences, policy and regulation will stress efficiency, efficacy, and patient safety. 


  1. Health insurance plans will increase mental health reimbursements to expand their provider networks.

Demand for mental health care is higher than ever: 6 in 10 Americans have sought or wanted to seek treatment for themselves or a loved one. At the same time, individuals are having trouble receiving care from in-network providers. Due to long-standing inequities, including historically lower provider reimbursement, many people face ghost networks when looking for mental health care covered their insurance. A new study by Milliman found that in 2017 people were 540% more likely to attend an out-of-network behavioral health office visit compared to an office medical / surgical primary care office visit. Health insurance companies know people need better access to mental health care; this will be the year that they make this a reality and begin to reward providers for the care they provide. Plans who move move slower than their peers on this trend will be pushed to move faster by their employer customers.


  1. The early foundation of value-based care models for mental health will emerge, measuring quality and rewarding providers for better services, not more services.

There is recognition that high-quality mental health care can improve total health and lower cost of care. Yet for decades the shift from fee-for-service to an outcomes-based health care system, also known as value-based health care, has focused almost entirely on physical health. This year there will be advancement across the industry to define what quality mental health care looks like, how to measure those domains, and ultimately how to build networks that reflect best practices. These quality measures will empower patients to choose providers who are accessible, affordable, and have experience treating patients with similar conditions. The measures will also serve as a necessary bridge to rewarding providers based on quality, not quantity. 


2020 is going to be the start of a transformative decade for mental health care. Another ten years from now, people will say 2020 was the year we began to treat mental health care as health care, and the conversation around mental health parity evolved from one focused on  access and benefits, to sharing information with patients about providers so that they can select the right high-quality mental health care services for their personal needs.

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