Legislations and policies to expand mental health and substance abuse benefits in health insurance plans: a community guide systematic economic review

Verughese Jacob, Shuli Qu, Sajal Chattopadhyay, Theresa Ann Sipe, John A Knopf, Ron Z Goetzel, Ramona Finnie, Anilkrishna B Thota
Journal of Mental Health Policy and Economics 2015, 18 (1): 39-48

BACKGROUND: Health insurance plans have historically limited the benefits for mental health and substance abuse (MH/SA) services compared to benefits for physical health services. In recent years, legislative and policy initiatives in the U.S. have been taken to expand MH/SA health insurance benefits and achieve parity with physical health benefits. The relevance of these legislations for international audiences is also explored, particularly for the European context.

AIMS OF THE STUDY: This paper reviews the evidence of costs and economic benefits of legislative or policy interventions to expand MH/SA health insurance benefits in the U.S. The objectives are to assess the economic value of the interventions by comparing societal cost to societal benefits, and to determine impact on costs to insurance plans resulting from expansion of these benefits.

METHODS: The search for economic evidence covered literature published from January 1950 to March 2011 and included evaluations of federal and state laws or rules that expanded MH/SA benefits as well as voluntary actions by large employers. Two economists screened and abstracted the economic evidence of MH/SA benefits legislation based on standard economic and actuarial concepts and methods.

RESULTS: The economic review included 12 studies: eleven provided evidence on cost impact to health plans, and one estimated the effect on suicides. There was insufficient evidence to determine if the intervention was cost-effective or cost-saving. However, the evidence indicates that MH/SA benefits expansion did not lead to any substantial increase in costs to insurance plans, measured as a percentage of insurance premiums.

DISCUSSION AND LIMITATIONS: This review is unable to determine the overall economic value of policies that expanded MH/SA insurance benefits due to lack of cost-effectiveness and cost-benefit studies, predominantly due to the lack of evaluations of morbidity and mortality outcomes. This may be remedied in time when long-term MH/SA patient-level data becomes available to researchers. A limitation of this review is that legislations considered here have been superseded by recent legislations that have stronger and broader impacts on MH/SA benefits within private and public insurance: Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act of 2008 (MHPAEA) and the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010 (ACA).

IMPLICATIONS FOR FUTURE RESEARCH: Economic assessments over the long term such as cost per QALY saved and cost-benefit will be feasible as more data becomes available from plans that implemented recent expansions of MH/SA benefits. Results from these evaluations will allow a better estimate of the economic impact of the interventions from a societal perspective. Future research should also evaluate the more downstream effects on business decisions about labor, such as effects on hiring, retention, and the offer of health benefits as part of an employee compensation package. Finally, the economic effect of the far reaching ACA of 2010 on mental health and substance abuse prevalence and care is also a subject for future research.

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