Lansing State Journal op-ed: The road to America’s mental health recovery goes through Washington
The impacts of COVID-19 have stretched far across our country and deep into our communities. Americans are keenly aware of the pandemic’s economic consequences, including the millions who lost their jobs and livelihoods. In the rebuilding process, we cannot overlook the extreme mental health toll taken by a now 18 month-long disaster.
All too often, treatment for new onset and longstanding mental health and substance use disorders was delayed or inaccessible during the worst of COVID-19. Now ERs are overwhelmed with patients in acute mental health crises. Sadly, this includes a 31 percent increase in mental health-related hospital visits by 12- to 17-year-olds.
Now more than ever, Congress needs to come together once again to tackle mental health care. It’s been five years since we collaborated across the aisle on our last major initiative, The Helping Families in Mental Health Crisis Act of 2016. It was the most significant mental health overhaul in decades. Today, we need to build on its success, and fast.
Despite these bipartisan efforts, an estimated 122 million people, more than one-third of the U.S. population, still live in areas with few, if any, mental health professionals. This includes 58 of 83 counties in my home state of Michigan. The situation is especially bleak for rural Americans, 60 percent of whom suffer a lack of local mental health resources.
The truth is, we know how to connect patients with the care they need, when they need it. Telehealth, for instance, enables providers, currently concentrated in our cities, to serve patients anywhere. Unfortunately, state licensing of psychiatrists, psychologists, and other practitioners bars most providers from offering telehealth services across state lines.
Given the severity of current shortages, Congress should intervene immediately to establish automatic license reciprocity for mental and behavioral health providers and pair it with a federal guarantee that patients can use telehealth throughout their treatment journey, including when establishing a provider relationship and obtaining prescriptions. We’ve facilitated license reciprocity for sports medicine in the past and can leverage the experience to accelerate progress on cross-border mental health care today.
While there is much for policymakers to do, the private sector is proposing innovative and thoughtful solutions as seen in a new report from The ERISA Industry Committee (ERIC), which lays out a plan to address the current mental and behavioral health care crisis.
It starts with solutions to allow better access to care and updates to outdated rules that are getting in the way.
For instance, IRS rules severely limit coverage for the account-based health insurance used by over half of the U.S. workforce and their dependents. Until the pandemic hit, employers were forbidden from paying for or subsidizing high-value services, like telehealth, for employees in these plans who hadn’t yet met their deductible. The government actually required that families bear the full cost burden, which itself deters patients from seeking mental health treatment. Congress wisely removed this restriction as part of a COVID-19 relief bill last spring, but the change will expire in December unless we make it permanent.
IRS rules also bar job creators from offering free care at worksite health centers. Other rules add insult to injury, prohibiting employers from providing any health benefits at all to workers unless the worker enrolls in a comprehensive benefit — effectively denying care to part-time workers, apprentices, interns, and others.
Many employers are already on the right track, but ultimately the road to better mental health and well-being for all Americans will require additional action from Congress.
Let’s set aside our differences, invite every stakeholder group to the table, and work in good faith and as fast as possible to improve mental and behavioral health care in this country at a most critical time.
U.S. Rep. Tim Walberg, R-Tipton, represents Michigan’s 7th District and is a member of the Energy and Commerce Committee and the Education and Labor Committee. This op-ed originally appeared in the August 6 edition of the Lansing State Journal.