Kentuckians’ access to mental health care lags. Paying providers more would help, says report.

Republished from Kentucky Lantern

Kentuckians are far more likely to pay out of pocket for mental and behavioral health services than for surgical or other medical care. 

This insight comes from a recent American Psychological Association report, which examined health insurance claims made by millions of Americans who sought care. 

Need mental health care in Kentucky?  

  • If you are in immediate crisis, text or call 988. 
  • To look for a mental health therapist near you, visit: Psychology Today and search by ZIP Code.
  • Check out the Kentucky Psychological Foundation’s Behavioral Health Roadmap. 
  • Find a support group through Kentucky’s chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness. 

The report showed that as COVID-19 peaked in the commonwealth, the number of Kentuckians forced to go out of their insurance network for acute inpatient care also increased. 

Eric Russ, the executive director of the Kentucky Psychological Association, told the Lantern the numbers are likely higher than the report reflects because not everyone who seeks out of network care will file an insurance claim. 

Overall, the report shows that Americans were 10.6 times more likely to go out of their insurance network for psychological care than they were for medical care. The paper cites lower reimbursement rates for mental health care providers as a major culprit. 

The report’s findings are “gravely disappointing,” Arthur C. Evans Jr., the CEO of the American Psychological Association, said in a statement. “The federal parity law, the Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act, passed in 2008 and it has still not achieved its goal of equitable access to care for mental health patients.” 

“The fact that so many patients are forced to go out of network to receive mental health and substance use care is unacceptable,” said Evans.  

“We have room to go before we have something that looks like real parity between our mental health and medical systems.” – Eric Russ, Kentucky Psychological Association executive director

The report recommends that states and health plans expand their behavioral health networks by raising reimbursement rates — “as they do for medical/surgical providers.” Having access to more network providers, the report says, would ease the financial burden on patients who now, if they cannot afford to pay out of pocket, may go without care.

The COVID-19 effect: a ‘sledgehammer’ 

Dr. Eric Russ, the Executive Director of the Kentucky Psychological Association
Eric Russ

The report showed that from 2019 to 2021, out of network utilization of acute inpatient behavioral health care increased from 2.5% to 4.0% in Kentucky. That’s much higher than 0.4% in 2019 and 0.2% in 2021 for medical and surgical care. 

In 2021, Kentuckians were 17.2 times more likely to get out-of network care for behavioral health than they were for medical or surgical care. But the percent of Kentuckians going out of network for outpatient behavioral care care decreased from 2019 to 2021 — 11% to 5%. 

“One thing we’ve seen out of COVID is an increase in behavioral health needs,” Russ said. Even before the pandemic, there was an increased need for mental health support. “And then COVID just took a sledgehammer to everybody’s mental health.” 

Because there were not enough in-network providers, Kentuckians had to look elsewhere for help, a burden Russ said “falls harder on minority populations.”   

“Structural discrimination puts minority populations at an increased risk of mental health issues generally,” he said. “And then the clinical field tends to be a pretty white dominated field,” which makes it more difficult to find providers who are culturally competent to treat someone from a particular background or identity. 

Stigma worsened by lack of access: ‘demoralizing’  

Usually when people seek care for a mental health issue, they’ve often already been struggling for a while, Russ said. 

“Usually they’ve been feeling down, depressed, anxious, having relationship problems, having eating disorders for quite a long time before they even start seeking treatment,” he said. “When you start looking, finally ready to get help, and then call your insurance company or call your primary care provider and say, ‘hey, where do I go?’ And they give you a list of providers and everybody’s full and you can’t get in — that’s incredibly demoralizing.” 

This can add to the stigma that already surrounds mental health issues, Russ said. It can also put people’s well being in jeopardy while they wait for help. This can be worse for people with conditions like ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder), who may already struggle with organization and time management. 

Kentucky is doing slightly better than other states, the data show. 

“No one is doing well” though, Russ said. “We have room to go before we have something that looks like real parity between our mental health and medical systems.” 


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