How will the Supreme Court respond to an argument next week that might lead to the disintegration of health care in America?
In recent years, we have been making slow policy progress in better coordinating and integrating primary and specialty care, and health and mental health care. Two milestones were the passage of the federal Mental Health Parity Act in 2008 and the Affordable Care Act provisions in 2010 that prohibit insurance discrimination against people with pre-existing conditions, both in coverage and in cost.
These are opening more primary care doors to people with mental illnesses.
80% of all mental health problems are first seen in a primary care office. And it now pays for a primary care clinician to screen for mental health problems. According to one recent projection completed by the Mental Health Association of Palm Beach County (available on request from that organization), a primary care practitioner can generate in excess of $100,000 in insurance payments for every 2,500 behavioral health screenings he or she completes.
Integration also appears to pay off for patients in earlier and more effective care. Between 2006 and 2009, the number of primary diagnoses of mental illness in general hospitals dropped from 2.4 million to 1.6 million, as more clinicians recognized the need to treat health and mental health symptoms – which are often indistinguishable – together.
Now the Supreme Court is being asked to weigh in on the question of integration.
Next Wednesday, on its third day of oral arguments about ACA, the Court will hear arguments about whether the individual mandate is “severable” from the rest of the Act. How it responds may well determine whether the recent progress we’ve made to integrate care will stall.
The Obama Administration is arguing that the individual mandate is intertwined with two other provisions – the mandate to provide coverage without regard to pre-existing conditions and the mandate to provide coverage at no additional cost to those with chronic conditions.
These are important consumer protections, but the Administration’s view is that without the individual
mandate healthy people will choose not to purchase insurance that covers expensive chronic conditions. Instead, they will just wait until they get sick and then buy the coverage that will still be guaranteed to them if the other mandates remain. This will in turn force up the price of insurance for everyone.
The Administration supports ACA, but most ACA opponents also agree with the Administration on this point, as have some judges who have already ruled on the law.
If the Supreme Court finds the individual mandate unconstitutional, and then also agrees that it is not severable from the other provisions, it would overturn these two additional mandates. This would result in a worst-case scenario for people with mental illnesses – a return to the private insurance market we’re just now leaving behind, where premiums are too high for them to afford, and coverage is too low for them to obtain effective treatment.
It won’t help people with other chronic conditions, either, as they head back out of primary care settings and into hospitals for treatment. We’ll all lose out, because properly diagnosing and treating chronic conditions early means less cost down the road, more effective care, and better patient outcomes.
The historical pressure against integration in the health care delivery system isn’t philosophical or constitutional, but is often the product of increasing specialization among health care providers. In 1960, there were approximately 7.5 primary care physicians and 7.5 specialty care physicians in the United States for every 10,000 citizens. Fifty years later, in 2010, there were just under 7 primary care physicians per 10,000 citizens, but over 13 specialists.
Specialists by training know a narrow area of medicine well. As a result, we have grown to think about chronic diseases one at a time, and we often treat them this way, too.
But this isn’t very efficient or effective, because patients usually bring more than one problem at a time to their primary care clinicians. And by the time they are in care, almost two-thirds of patients with at least one chronic condition have at least one more.
That’s why we need integrated health and mental health services, and fair coverage for chronic diseases. And that’s also why – if policymakers aren’t ready with an alternative – the disintegration of health and mental health care could result from the Supreme Court’s decision about severability.
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