This week, our In Focus section highlights an HMA Issue Brief, Bolstering the Youth Behavioral Health System: Innovative State Policies to Address Access & Parity, published in August 2022. The brief examines policies aiming to advance access and availability of behavioral health services (encompassing mental health and substance use disorders) for youth. Below we explore opportunities for states to adopt levers to ensure access to the full continuum of children’s behavioral health services. States should consider developing a multi-faceted strategy to address accessibility issues including:
- A policy mechanism for insurance coverage and funding for infrastructure, support and services across behavioral health, child welfare and Medicaid
- A robust delivery system for provision of services
- Comprehensive benefit design
- A mechanism to monitor network adequacy, access, and parity
The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated rates of depression, anxiety, and other behavioral health issues among youth – with suicide now the second leading cause of death among ages 10-12. Pre-pandemic, 1 in 5 children experienced a mental health condition every year and only 54 percent of non-institutionalized youth enrolled in Medicaid or CHIP received mental health treatment. Between March 2020 to October 2020, mental health–related emergency department visits increased 24 percent among youth ages 5 to 11 and 31 percent among ages 12 to 17, compared with 2019 emergency department visits.
Youth covered by Medicaid and the State Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP), and the Early and Periodic Screening, Diagnostic and Treatment (EPSDT) of the Medicaid Act require state Medicaid agencies to provide enrollees under age 21 with access to periodic and preventive screenings, and services that are necessary to “correct or ameliorate” medical conditions, including other additional health care services such as behavioral health conditions. It remains the responsibility of states to determine medical necessity on a case by-case basis. As of 2020, states are mandated to submit a CHIP state plan amendment to demonstrate compliance with the new behavioral health coverage provisions. However, behavioral health services are not a specifically defined category of benefits in federal Medicaid law and coverage of many services is at state discretion. The 2008 Mental Health Parity and Equity Act (MHPAEA) requires that Medicaid managed care and private health insurers who do reimburse for behavioral health services provide behavioral health benefits to cover mental health and substance use services that is no more restrictive than the coverage generally available for medical and surgical benefits. While MHPAEA was designed to reduce inequities in coverage between behavioral and physical health services, it does not reduce inequities in reimbursement as payers are not required to cover behavioral health services.
Ambitious efforts are underway to prioritize behavioral health services for youth. The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) recently called for states to prioritize and maximize efforts to strengthen youth mental health. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry (AACAP) and Children’s Hospital Association declared a national emergency in children’s mental health. In addition, passage of the Bipartisan Safer Communities legislation includes significant funding for mental health screening, expansion of community behavioral health center (CCBHC) model; improving access to mental health services for children, youth, and families through the Medicaid program and CHIP; increasing access to mental health services for youth and families in crisis via telehealth; and investments to expand provider training in mental health, supporting suicide prevention, crisis and trauma intervention, and recovery.
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