What benefit pros need to know about expanding mental health coverage

Brett Shrewsbury is the Chief Commercial Officer at Meru

Serious Caucasian middle-aged businesswoman taking on mobile phone at her home office.

This article was originally published at BenefitsPro.

The pandemic drastically changed the way mental health is covered by insurance. Unlike previous years, when many companies overlooked the need for mental health benefits, today employers and health plans are expanding coverage for issues like depression, stress and anxiety.

And for good reason. The rate of depression has tripled since the pandemic began, impacting one in three Americans, while anxiety has jumped from 7.4% of adults in 2019 to 37.2% in 2021, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Benefits professionals have a timely opportunity during open enrollment to educate companies and individuals about the value of mental health coverage and how the industry is evolving during COVID. As you begin to filter through the various options for mental health coverage, here are a few things you should keep in mind.

1. Embrace innovation

Providing a digital environment where a provider and patient can interact, including with interactive and asynchronous texting, does work. In this new digital environment, patients and therapists no longer need to meet face-to-face. And younger and work-from-home audiences actively seek these types of services, rather than the more conventional in-person therapy appointments. Using technology, many digital health solutions are scaling their providers’ ability by optimizing their time and cutting out unnecessary admin work. Don’t dismiss these approaches. They work. Most importantly, if you continue to view coverage through the pre-pandemic lens of physical appointments, these new innovations will not be embraced and the same problem will continue to impact us all.

Likewise, challenge the status quo with your health plans and providers to force innovation to be embraced. Many patients no longer want face-to-face sessions. They’d prefer flexibility and convenience in the comfort of their own home. By offering these more flexible schedules for employees and members, you will be expanding your employee benefits towards their needs. Cigna and Aetna are just a few of the health plans that are expanding their coverage in 2022 that will enable members to seek mental health solutions on their phones as a covered benefit.

2. Spend more and save more

Employers’ mental health spend is likely going to increase, but overall, health care spend will decrease over time. As employees get healthier, they will take fewer sick days and productivity will increase. Over the long-term, your health care costs will even out or even improve. The American Psychiatric Association found that employees who suffer from unresolved depression perform at a productivity level 35% lower than other employees. That translates into a loss of $210.5 billion annually due to absenteeism and on-the-job issues. That health care spend will be reversed as employees become more productive with fewer sick days and they will use the health care system less providing overall savings in spend.

3. Educate the companies you work with

Although close to 40% of companies upgraded their mental health offerings during the pandemic, that still leaves a whopping 60% of companies that may not be meeting their employees’ needs. Today’s businesses are competing for top talent, and great coverage for mental health can help those companies attract and retain the best employees. Not only are physical health benefits and HR policies important to new hires, but attractive and savvy candidates will also be asking about mental health coverage and sometimes choosing employers based on that.

Remote workforces, unhappy employees, and high turnover create a range of new hurdles for leaders and workers alike. Highlighting mental health options that are available during Open Enrollment not only removes the stigma, but can ultimately lead to a better workforce and the ability to attract top talent.

4. Solve the access problem

Right now, a shortage of health care providers exists and it’s not going away. Companies are looking at telehealth. but that doesn’t solve the problem, especially in light of the surge in mental health needs. Although the shortage of therapists is still a reality, providers can use expanding technology to offer more mental health services without increasing the load of therapists. For example, Meru Health has developed turnkey programs that provide on-demand access to patients, on their phones. Technology and programs like this are driving down the delivery costs of mental health care while expanding accessibility.

The upward trajectory in depression and anxiety isn’t ending soon, but by educating and advocating for mental health programs, benefits pros can make the decision easier and more valuable for their employees, especially during Open Enrollment.

About the author

Brett Shrewsbury is the Chief Commercial Officer for Meru Health, which combines therapist and psychiatrist support, a biofeedback training device, anonymous peer support, meditation practices, & habit-changing activities for sleep, nutrition, and more.

Still have questions? Ask away.