Online Mental-Health Care Shouldn’t End With the Pandemic

(Bloomberg Opinion) — It’s been a grim few months for the U.S., with some 120,000 Americans dead from Covid-19 and tens of millions out of work. So it’s no surprise that many are feeling on edge. As of early June, more than one in three Americans reported experiencing symptoms of depression or anxiety — a dramatic increase from roughly one in 10 last year.

This doesn’t mean one-third of Americans have a diagnosable mental disorder, but many would surely benefit from professional help. Even before the pandemic struck, more than half of those with mental-health disorders went untreated or undertreated. The Covid-19 pandemic has no doubt made this problem worse. But it has also, fortuitously, made it easier than ever for people to see therapists and psychiatrists from home. Policy-makers and insurers should build on this recent expansion of telehealth, and make it permanent feature of U.S. mental-health care.  

In late March, amid concerns that social distancing would keep Americans from seeing their doctors, the federal government moved to broaden telehealth access — for instance, by making Medicare cover an array of services offered online or over the phone. State Medicaid programs and private insurers quickly followed suit. Psychiatrists and therapists, paid more than before to offer socially distanced consultations, counseling and addiction treatment, went online. For the first time, telehealth services for mental disorders became available to many millions of Americans. 

Telemedicine, which research shows is just as effective as in-person mental-health care, has long been proposed as a way improve access to treatment in rural areas. But until recently, strict rules governed where patients could get treatment, and psychologists and psychiatrists risked losing money by providing it. In a post-Covid world, that’s no longer the case. The demand from patients is clear. One Massachusetts insurer reported processing nearly half a million claims for socially distanced mental-health care in just over two months, and added hundreds of providers to meet the need.

Unfortunately, as things stand now, the federal government and many private insurers will reverse this shift once the coronavirus threat fades. This would be a mistake. Telemedicine is no cure-all — uneven access to technology means it’s unavailable in some areas, and online mental-health treatment poses unique security and privacy challenges. Still, it can make a big difference. By removing common barriers to treatment, such as transportation costs and scheduling issues, it greatly improves access to care.

Telehealth should be seen not as a stopgap measure but as a standard and crucial part of our mental-health system. Providers that offer quality care online should be reimbursed appropriately, and patients should have access to their services.

It’s encouraging that some lawmakers, from both sides of the aisle, are working to make this happen. Though they disagree on the details, they agree that expanded access to telehealth services should be a priority. Their efforts deserve wide support. Eventually, the coronavirus crisis will abate, but America’s mental-health needs aren’t going away.

Editorials are written by the Bloomberg Opinion editorial board.

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