The myth of mental health parity

Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank learned what thousands — maybe millions — of other Americans have already learned recently: Getting help for mental illness is an impossible task.

A woman he knows has insurance, thanks to the Affordable Care Act, but when Milbank tried to get his acquaintance some help for panic attacks, he couldn’t find mental health professionals willing to take it and, if they took it, they had no openings to see the woman.

This isn’t a new story; it’s one that doesn’t change.

Isabella wouldn’t have found psychiatric help without two educated, connected and persistent advocates representing her. (After I made an inquiry for this column, Mary’s Center offered to see Isabella, but we declined.) What if you’re not well-off, well-educated or well-connected and you start hearing voices in your head telling you to shoot people — but you are told by place after place that no doctor is available to see you?

One of those we asked for help with Isabella was my college friend John Santopietro, a psychiatrist who is chief clinical officer for behavioral health in the Carolinas HealthCare System in Charlotte, N.C. He said her experience is typical.

One in five of us needs mental-health treatment at any given time, and for those who get good care, the recovery rate is between 60 percent and 80 percent — higher than in many other medical fields. But only about 40 percent of the people who need treatment get any help, Santopietro said, and those who do “often get bounced around in a system that leaves them feeling misunderstood, stigmatized, brushed aside.”

Obamacare aimed to improve this woeful system by requiring mental-health parity. But psychiatrists, many of whom stopped taking insurance because of the paltry reimbursement, have yet to rejoin the system. This leaves the public mental-health system (clinics that charge on a sliding scale) overloaded.

Mass shootings in the past year have prompted efforts in Congress to address the issue. Past efforts have ground to a halt over the issue of guns, and this one is heading in that direction too, Politico reports.