Payers brace for behavioral health costs to keep rising

Demand for behavioral healthcare is on the rise. 

According to a survey published Aug. 22 by the Employers Business Group on Health, 77 percent of large employers reported an increase of mental health concerns among employees, up from 44 percent in 2022. Another 16 percent of employers surveyed expect mental health needs to increase in the future. 

Of the employers surveyed, 17 percent said mental healthcare is among the top drivers of healthcare costs. 

The increasing need for mental healthcare is reflected in payers' utilization trends, according to executives. 

UnitedHealth Group has seen a rise in people seeking behavioral healthcare, CEO Andrew Witty told investors July 14. 

"From our perspective it's an encouraging sign that more people are seeking help. Yet the ongoing shortage of qualified care providers has caused significant access challenges," Mr. Witty said. 

Though mental health is contributing to overall higher utilization, outpatient procedures in Medicare Advantage are a much larger driver of the trend, UnitedHealth Group executives said. 

Centene CEO Sarah London said the company is seeing a similar trend. Behavioral health is one of the areas where costs are growing the fastest. 

Part of this increase is due to demand, Ms. London said in a June 27 interview with Bloomberg TV. 

"Behavioral health is a huge issue, even more so now after the pandemic, [and] a shortage of mental health providers. But if you can leverage telehealth, you can extend into areas where they have supply shortages, or out into rural populations," Ms. London said. 

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