Mental health spending up 50 percent since beginning of COVID-19 pandemic: study

The amount of employer-provided private insurance funds spent on mental health services rose by over 50 percent since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a new study.

The study, published Friday in JAMA Health Forum by RAND Corporation and Castlight Health experts, found that between January 2019 and August 2022, spending and the utilization of mental health services by adults with employer-provided private insurance rose by 53.7 percent and 38.8 percent respectively, during the pandemic.

This includes services for PTSD, major depressive disorder, bipolar disorder and schizophrenia, according to the study.

“The changes that occurred during the COVID-19 pandemic have triggered a significant expansion in the use of mental health services among adults with employer-based health insurance,” Jonathan Cantor, a policy researcher at the RAND corporation. “It remains uncertain whether this trend will continue or return to levels similar to those seen before the pandemic.” 

While in-person services declined by around 40 percent during the beginning of the pandemic, when lockdowns were first implemented, telehealth services were prevalent. During the post-peak period, in-person services increased by 2 percent monthly, according to the research.

By the end of the pandemic in-person mental health visits were around 80 percent of what they were pre-pandemic, the study said.

However, researchers are unsure if that trend will continue.

“If greater utilization of health services drives higher health care spending, insurers may begin pushing back on the new status quo,” Cantor, the lead author of the study, wrote. “Insurers may look for ways to curb costs and that could mean less flexibility about using telehealth for mental health services.”

The study used insurance claims from about 7 million adults with employer-based private insurance from January 2019 to August 2022 for its research data, according to the RAND Corporation.

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