Pres. Joe Biden’s State of the Union address laid out a vision for addressing the ailing American mental health care system that was well-received by leaders and advocates in the behavioral health space.
Several industry groups and executives in the space expressed their relief that addressing behavioral health — especially mental health and substance use disorder — was finally a feature part of a president’s national agenda.
“This is the first time we’ve seen any presidential administration make such strong commitments on mental healthcare, which couldn’t come at a more pivotal moment in our nation’s history,” Russell Glass, CEO of Headspace Health, said in a statement.
On Tuesday night, Biden included a plan for more funding and regulation changes meant to bolster the behavioral health industry as part of his self-proclaimed unity agenda which focuses heavily on health care-related initiatives.
In short, the four items are beating the opioid epidemic, addressing mental health (especially among youth), supporting American veterans suffering following exposure to burn pits and creating the Advanced Research Projects Agency for Health.
“We had a pre-existing mental health crisis in America before COVID-19 which the pandemic has dramatically amplified,” Schroeder Stribling, president and CEO of Mental Health America, said in a statement, adding that the Biden agenda “is a necessary beginning — and it will save lives.”
Leaders in the space applauded efforts to expand the behavioral health workforce and to strengthen the enforcement of existing mental health parity laws. Both are frequent complaints of and prominent ailments for the behavioral health industry.
The White House said in a fact sheet released before the State of the Union that the Biden administration would, in part, call for added funding to boost the size and diversity of the behavioral health workforce. This includes a call for $700 million to go toward workforce recruitment and training programs aimed at attracting new behavioral health workers to rural and underserved communities.
The fact sheet also called for the strengthening of the paraprofessional workforce in behavioral health, including a national certification for peer support specialists.
On the parity front, Biden’s State of the Union address added to the momentum that Democrats in Congress and other leaders in the administration have created around toughening parity laws for mental health.
In October, the administrator for the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services said that her agency was committed to achieving parity in reimbursement between physical and mental health services. In January, three cabinet-level federal agencies released a report panning the health insurance industry for not taking existing parity laws seriously. And Congressional Democrats have started their efforts to craft a legislative package that addresses behavioral health issues in the U.S. — an effort that is facing pushback by certain lobbyists and advocates.
The national health insurance trade group AHIP, which has apparently lobbied against parity, also appeared to welcome Biden’s plan to revitalize the American behavioral health care system.
“We strongly support parity in coverage for physical and behavioral health needs, expanded access to telehealth services, and driving value-based care arrangements that include behavioral health providers and services,” Matt Eyles, AHIP President and CEO said in a statement.
Dr. Gerald Harmon, president of the American Medical Association said in a statement, criticized the health insurance industry for “nearly 15 years of repeated failures … to comply with the landmark mental health and substance use disorder parity law.”
“The president was right to draw attention to this critical gap in access to mental health care, and we are pleased he is prioritizing parity, particularly at this challenging time,” Harmon added in a statement.
Similarly, the National Association of Addiction Treatment Providers lent its appreciation for the call for parity.
“Enforcing the Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act is a major focus of NAATP and the [substance use disorder] treatment field, and we are encouraged regarding the possibilities,” the group said in a statement. “Progress in our field is possible when legislation is supported on a bipartisan basis. We were particularly pleased that the President made the point that addiction is not a partisan disease, and neither should be the solution.”
Business leaders in the digital mental health and telehealth space supported Biden’s call for a better regulatory environment for virtual care.
While it wasn’t addressed in the State of the Union, the Biden administration’s fact sheet for its mental health agenda calls for the U.S. Health and Human Services Department to create a“learning collaborative” with state governments to address barriers to providing telehealth across state lines.
Dr. Varun Choudhary, chief medical officer of Talkspace Inc., said his company also supports Congress making permanent pandemic-related regulatory changes that allowed for telehealth use in behavioral health to grow at an incredible clip. Telehealth utilization within the federal health plan Medicare alone grew by 3,090% in 2020 compared to 2019. Leaders within the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services have already said they would like to see state leaders lock in present telehealth regulation changes
Glass added that updates to telehealth regulations, especially for care across state lines, are long overdue and are vital to addressing access and equity concerns with the behavioral health industry.
“It’s clear that solving our mental health crisis won’t happen without close collaboration and alignment among providers, payers, employers and policymakers alike — and we certainly have a long road ahead,” Glass said. “That said, this strategy is a promising signal of investment and commitment from our nation’s leadership to addressing one of the most defining societal crises of our time.”