US falling short on behavioral health access amid pandemic, GAO analysis suggests

Federal data collected during the COVID-19 pandemic suggests that the number of adults reporting symptoms of anxiety or depression has risen, while in-person behavioral health access has decreased, an analysis released April 30 from the Government Accountability Office found. 

Seven takeaways from the analysis:

1. CDC survey data collected from April 2020 through February 2021 found that 38 percent of U.S. adults reported symptoms of anxiety or depression, on average, compared to 11 percent from January to June 2019. 

2. At the same time, CDC data showed the share of emergency department visits for drug overdoses was 36 percent higher for the period of mid-March through mid-October 2020, compared to the same period the year before. 

3. The share of emergency department visits for suicide attempts was 26 percent higher year over year.

4. A February 2021 National Council for Behavioral Health member survey found that about two-thirds of the member organizations surveyed said demand for their services climbed in the three months prior and reported having to cancel or reschedule patient appointments or reject patients. 

5. A National Council for Behavioral Health survey found that 27 percent of member organizations laid off employees during the pandemic; 45 percent closed some programs; and 35 percent reduced staff hours. 

6. Federal data showed shortages of qualified behavioral health professionals have been one potential barrier to in-person behavioral health access, especially in rural areas, the GAO said. 

7. The GAO said officials from the National Council for Behavioral Health and from hospital associations and insurance regulators in Oregon, Pennsylvania, Texas and Virginia also cited provider reimbursement rates and health system capacity as contributing factors to a shortage of in-person behavioral health access.  

Read the GAO's full report here

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