Virus Outbreak Massachusetts

A masked pedestrian passes a sign honoring health care workers in the window of The Massachusetts General Hospital's North End Waterfront Health center during the coronavirus pandemic, Tuesday, May 12, 2020, in the North End neighborhood of Boston. 

(The Center Square) – Massachusetts legislators are looking to address the state’s increasing mental health care problems with new legislation.

Before COVID-19, one in 10 adults reported experiencing symptoms of anxiety or depression, according to Danna Mauch, president and CEO of Massachusetts Association for Mental Health. Since the pandemic started, that number has risen to four in 10 adults.

As numbers of patients increase, systemic problems become more intense.

Massachusetts has struggled with staffing shortages for years, Mauch said.

“The clinics have not been able to hold on to enough licensed clinicians to deliver enough outpatient services,” she told The Center Square. “That happens because people who have clinical degrees are not satisfied with the low reimbursement rate paid by the insurers.”

In addition to not having enough beds, hospitals suffer from the same basic problem: low reimbursement rates leading to staff shortages, she said.

Another facet contributing to the problem is people putting off care during the pandemic.

“For a while, people were delaying treatment for more serious needs when they should have been seen face-to-face,” Mauch said. “That didn’t just happen in behavioral health – that happened in all of health. People didn’t want to go near a clinic or hospital because of fear of infection, and now there’s a lot of pent-up demand for care, which is hard to meet.”

Lawmakers have introduced a number of bills in an attempt to address these problems, all of which Mauch thinks will be helpful in a different way.

Two similar bills in the House and Senate (SB 776, HB 1291) would require the state’s insurance program to provide comparable access to mental health services, WBUR reported.

Mauch said this will benefit those in need because many mental health patients think twice about reaching out for help because the insurance coverage for such services isn't great.

Senate Bill 769 looks at engendering collaborative care, which would make mental health care services and primary care available in the same space. Mauch notes mental health and physical health problems often compound each other.

“The outcomes are so much better if you treat both conditions,” she said.

Another House/Senate bill duo (SB 781, HB 1302) focuses on fixing the reimbursement rate issues plaguing the system. Mauch notes how necessary this is, pointing to studies that show a reimbursement rate gap of 30% to 60% between psychiatry and other medical practices.

The bills would require MassHealth, the state’s insurance program, to increase what it pays to licensed mental health clinics, WBUR reported.