"The groundwork of all happiness is health." - Leigh Hunt

Mental health spending rose 54% during pandemic: study

August 28, 2023 – A brand new study reveals the dramatic increase in using mental health services throughout the pandemic and shows that this increase was largely sustained because people accessed treatment via telehealth.

Adult Americans have increased their use of mental health services by 39% and increased spending by 54% over the course of the pandemic, in keeping with a brand new evaluation of insurance claims released Friday. While in-person visits to mental health services fell sharply at the beginning of the pandemic, they recovered to about 80% of their pre-pandemic levels by August 2022.

The results were published in JAMA Health Forum and included data from greater than 1.5 million claims filed for 7 million U.S. adults with employer-based private insurance. The researchers warned that continued increases in use and spending may lead insurers to cut back coverage in the long run.

The evaluation compared applications from three periods: the 12 months before the pandemic, the period from March 2020 to December 2020 after which from December 2020 to August 2022.

During the period March-December 2020, in-person visits declined by 40%, while psychiatric telehealth visits increased tenfold in comparison with the previous 12 months. When the decline in in-person visits and the rise in telehealth visits are combined, this represents a 22% increase in using mental health services throughout the early phase of the pandemic.

When researchers examined the conditions for which individuals sought help, similar to depression, anxiety or bipolar disorder, they found that the rise was consistent across every type of illnesses.

During the period from December 2020 to August 2022, telehealth visits remained at their high levels, while in-person visits to mental health facilities increased by about 2% every month. By August 2022, in-person visits had returned to about 80% of their pre-pandemic levels.

“If increased health care utilization leads to higher health care spending, insurers may begin to push back against the new status quo,” said Dr. Jonathan Cantor, lead creator of the study and a policy researcher on the nonprofit RAND Corp., in a Press release“Insurers may be looking for ways to reduce costs, and that could mean less flexibility in using telemedicine for mental health services.”

The authors noted that their study had some limitations, including that they only considered claims from private, employer-based insurance coverage. That is, the information don't include mental health care use by individuals who produce other insurance, similar to government coverage through Medicaid or Medicare. The researchers also said they may not distinguish between individuals who were newly in search of mental health care and people who were in ongoing treatment.