Companies have stepped up for employee mental health — now, it’s Congress’ turn

AP Photo/Charlie Riedel

Responding to a tidal wave of demand from employees and their families, large employers nationwide have provided a range of mental and behavioral health benefits to millions, overcoming impediments and challenges caused by federal and state regulations and the mental health profession itself. Today, large employers are calling on Congress to help them help their workforces and address those challenges by adopting commonsense policies to improve mental health services access, affordability and quality. 

It has often been said that everything about COVID-19 “became political.” Lockdowns, school closures, travel restrictions, mask mandates, social distancing, vaccine availability and requirements: All of these policies, at the national, state and local levels, became flashpoints in our seemingly nonstop battle over how, to what extent and for what duration we should battle the pandemic.

But there is one aspect of COVID-19 that is anything but political, and upon which there is broad agreement and evidence: the pandemic’s brutal and unrelenting assault on our mental health.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), as the pandemic was in its early stages, rates of depression and anxiety skyrocketed, with 40 percent of adults in the United States struggling with mental health or substance use issues in mid-2020. By the end of 2020, nearly 190 million people visited emergency departments for mental health conditions, suicide attempts, drug overdoses and child abuse and neglect. 

Members of The ERISA Industry Committee (ERIC), which are among America’s largest nationwide companies and leaders in every industry sector — responded to the COVID-19-driven mental health crisis with alacrity.

Companies worked to adjust and improve benefits to meet the growing need for more access to affordable mental and behavioral health services from employees and their families. They did not find these solutions “off the shelf” from existing vendors and often had to design programs on their own or work with new innovators and disruptors to develop and roll out programs.  

They set up new virtual programs to address the mental health needs of their workforce and their families, with many establishing online mental health campaigns to increase awareness and promote overall wellness. Some offered self-guided resources and free mobile apps to build emotional resilience, improve sleep and manage stress. Other employers offered access to one-on-one counseling with clinicians and increased access by adding virtual daily group counseling sessions for parents, adult caregivers and those caring for family members with disabilities. 

The bottom line: Our members were creative and proactive in their response to the mental health needs of employees and their loved ones. To do so, however, they had to overcome many roadblocks, impediments and challenges. By addressing those challenges, Congress can help companies expand and improve the effectiveness of employer-provided mental health benefits. 

In particular, our members believe Congress can and should act now to improve access to and the quality of mental health services, expand the mental health profession and encourage creative and proactive ways to provide mental health services. Here’s how:

  • Improve access to and quality of mental health services. Mental health services are highly regulated at all levels. Congress should seek to modernize health care account rules to increase flexibility for employees and improve access to mental and behavioral health. ERIC member companies believe there are several ways to do that: Congress can help by requiring provider transparency regarding the ability to accept new patients, allowing mental health providers to practice across state lines to improve access to culturally competent care and expanding telehealth benefits for all employees to improve access to mental health providers.   
  • Expand the mental health profession. The steep increase in demand for mental health services has revealed a dire shortage in the number of mental health professionals. Congress should incentivize more practitioners to enter the mental health field by increasing education funding and tuition reimbursement, among other measures, to help expand the mental health provider ranks. Also helpful: integrating and encouraging interdisciplinary team mental health care to improve coordination between primary care physicians and other supports, such as group meetings and therapy sessions. 
  • Encourage smart, creative and proactive ways to provide mental health services. By providing patients with more and better information, and employers with flexibility in the provision of mental health benefits, Congress can improve the situation for all. Federal government publication of meaningful provider quality and safety information will help patients find the most effective treatment for themselves and their loved ones. And promoting the adoption of value-based mental health care models would encourage providers to manage patients’ mental health, rather than waiting to intercede when crises arise — and result in more efficient care and better outcomes.
  • Be ready for what’s next. It will never be said that the COVID-19 pandemic did our society or economy any favors. But if the pandemic produced any positives, one certainly must be that today there is more widespread recognition that our mental health — like our physical health — is essential to monitor, address and treat. Over the last two years, as we struggled with the mental health toll of the pandemic on our spouses, partners, children and ourselves, we turned to our employers and health benefits plans for help. They responded as quickly and effectively as possible, expanding their benefit offerings with such ideas as telehealth and online options, as well as paid time off for mental health days. Along the way, employers encountered a range of mental health treatment issues and challenges — from a shortage of professionals to the prohibition of cross-state border treatment to a lack of quality and efficacy data in the mental and behavioral health space. 

In the spirit of Mental Health Awareness month, Congress should today help employers be ready for what’s next by adopting commonsense policies to improve access to, and the quality and affordability of, mental health services for all Americans.

Annette Guarisco Fildes is president and CEO of The ERISA Industry Committee (ERIC), a national advocacy organization that exclusively represents large employers that provide health, retirement, paid leave, and other benefits to their nationwide workers. 

Tags Coronavirus COVID-19 Mental health during the COVID-19 pandemic Mental health in the United States Politics of the United States

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