At a recent conference I attended, a speaker asked everyone in the room to raise their hands if they had either suffered from mental health problems or had a loved one who has suffered from mental health problems.
Not surprisingly, literally everyone in the room shot up their hand almost immediately.
The Midwest Business Group on Health hosts an annual health care benefits conference in Chicago in early May, and this year many speakers focused on mental health. This is fitting, since May is Mental Health Awareness Month. I’m also working on a feature for Workforce’s September/October issue about mental health care benefits. Hearing so people from the health care industry talk about this topic is extremely helpful.
A lot of us in the HR space have heard the usual numbers about how many people have mental health problems each year and the cost to businesses. But one speaker advised us to look past the numbers. Mental health statistics aren’t just data. Don’t just think about the numbers; think about the people behind the numbers, said Jennifer Posa Flynn, health care quality director, neuroscience & infectious disease at Johnson & Johnson Health Care Systems.
This was easy for everyone in the room who swiftly raised our hands, and, I imagine, many of you reading this right now.
Flynn also encouraged attendees (mostly employers and some vendors) to consider mental health as part of their corporate social responsibility strategy. I love this idea! I like to point out in any article that the quality of mental health benefits in a health plan is vital, but it also doesn’t hurt to look at mental health more holistically, like through CSR.
We didn’t get into this topic too deeply at the conference, but I imagine there are many ways mental health and CSR interlock. Employees could volunteer at community organizations that support mental health. Or, employers could consider how their policies, benefits and culture impact their employees’ mental health as a key part of their company’s overall goals. Basically, employers could be mindful of employee mental health and both employers and employees could be mindful of societal mental health problems in their communities.
Cheryl Potts, executive director at the Kennedy Forum, also had some great points regarding mental health. This Chicago-based advocacy group is also involved with its local community, which is a solid example of CSR.
Although Illinois has the strongest mental-health parity law in the country, there are still significant instances of health plans discriminating against people with mental illnesses, she said. For example, insurance companies that deny claims based on their own medical necessity criteria rather than what the patient actually needs.
For example, UnitedHealthcare in March lost a lawsuit about this issue. The class-action suit was brought on behalf of more than 50,000 people denied coverage by the insurance company.
“Discrimination is embedded in how we pay for services in our country,” Potts said.
Henry Harbin, a psychiatrist with over 30 years of experience in the behavioral health field, gave a good overview of what employers are doing well in responding to inadequate mental health care and where there’s still room for improvement.
People are generally more comfortable talking about mental health openly, and employers have generally done a good job at addressing mental health in their workplace culturally, he said. But many have done little to try to change mental health care delivery. That’s a good area to focus on, he advised. He also pointed out the unsettling fact that death rates are increasing for areas like suicide and substance use at the same time where more money is being spent on behavioral conditions than ever before.
I’ll dig deeper into his suggestions for employers in the upcoming issue of Workforce. For now, his overriding idea was the importance of employers knowing what their third-party administrators are doing with behavioral health care and using their influence to push to change harmful practices. Employers can obtain vital behavioral health data from their third-party administrators like reimbursement rates, out-of-network use and denial rates.