Health Care Delivery System Provision of Preventive Behavioral Services

The need for behavioral services is substantial. Many who could benefit from treatment for these disorders do not receive care (Woodward et al., 1997; Harwood, Sullivan, & Malhorta, 2001).

Some of the lack of development of behavioral health services within health care delivery systems may be owing to the perception that mental health and substance use disorder services may be “softer” and therefore less effective than conventional medical therapy. However, the efficacy and cost-efficiency of these services is well established and has been recommended by multiple national organizations since at least the early 1990s (U.S. Preventive Services Task Force [USPSTF], 1996, 2002a, 2003).

The 1994 IOM report was titled Reducing Risks for Mental Disorders—Frontiers for Preventive Intervention Research (Mrazek & Haggerty, eds., 1994). A 1998 follow-up report, Preventing Mental Health and Substance Abuse Problems in Managed Care Settings (Mrazek, 1998), was completed in collaboration with the National Mental Health Association (NMHA). This report recommended widespread implementation of primary preventive programming to address five problem areas within health care systems:

  1. Prevention of initial onset of unipolar major depression across the life span
  2. Prevention of low birthweight and prevention of child maltreatment in children from birth to 2 years of age whose mothers are identified as being at high risk
  3. Prevention of alcohol or drug abuse in children who have an alcohol- or drug- abusing parent
  4. Prevention of mental health problems in physically ill patients (comorbidity prevention)
  5. Prevention of conduct disorders in young children

The 1999 Surgeon General Report was titled Mental Health: A Report of the Surgeon General (DHHS, 1999). Although the major focus of this report was care and management of mental disorders, all major preventive services were included.

SAMHSA published two recent prevention-related health care reports. The 2000 literature review titled Preventive Interventions Under Managed Care (Dorfman, 2000) used broader definitions of “prevention” and “mental health services” and recommended six interventions for managed care plans:

  1. Prenatal and infancy home visits
  2. Targeted cessation education and counseling for smokers—especially those who are pregnant
  3. Targeted short-term mental health therapy
  4. Self-care education for adults
  5. Presurgical educational intervention with adults
  6. Brief counseling and advice to reduce alcohol use

This new literature review retains four of the above services and omits numbers three and four on short-term mental health therapy and self-care. The companion document published in 2002 was titled Estimating the Cost of Preventive Services in Mental Health and Substance Abuse Under Managed Care (Broskowski & Smith, 2002). This report provided cost data for each of the services recommended in the 2000 literature review.

It also featured, for each set of recommended services, a range of costs and options based on case mix and private versus public insurance coverage. It estimated the cost to managed care organizations (MCOs) to implement recommendations for four possible scenarios ranging from most expensive to least expensive, given drivers such as enrollment mix, staffing, staff salaries, and fixed and variable expenses. This report did not consider savings in other health care expenses. Even with the most expensive of cost profiles, the report did conclude that all six services could be fully implemented at a marginal cost of less than a 1 percent increase in cost, per member per month.

During this period, SAMHSA and the National Committee on Quality Assurance (NCQA)–sponsored Health Employer Data Information Set (HEDIS) program have attempted to bring preventive behavioral services to the attention of the managed care community. In response to market pressures to demonstrate high scores on HEDIS measures, the managed care community has taken giant strides to improve the care of patients with depression and has taken steps to enhance member adherence to prescribed regimens of care for diabetes.

In 1998, SAMHSA’s Center for Substance Abuse Prevention created the National Registry of Effective Programs (NREP) as a resource to help professionals in the field become better consumers of prevention programs (Schinke et al., 2002). NREP reviews and screens evidence-based programs (conceptually sound and/or theoretically driven by risk and protective factors) that, through an expert consensus review of research, demonstrate scientifically defensible evidence. NREP initially focused on substance use prevention but has expanded to include mental health; co-occurring mental health and substance use disorders; adolescent substance use treatment; mental health promotion; and adult mental health treatment. Many programs focus on school and family, but increasingly, programs from community coalitions and environmental programs are being identified as well implemented, well evaluated, and effective.

NREP evaluates programs for substance abuse prevention and treatment, co-occuring disorders, and mental health treatment, promotion, and prevention. After receiving published and unpublished program materials from candidates, NREP reviewers, drawn from 80 experts in relevant fields, rate each program according to 18 criteria for methodological rigor, and they also score programs for adoptability and usefulness to communities (Schinke et al., 2002). Based on the overall scoring, NREP categorizes programs as Model Programs, Effective Programs, Promising Programs, or Programs with Insufficient Current Support. Those wishing to learn more about Model Programs can visit At this site, there is also a link providing detailed information about NREP and the process for submitting a program for NREP review.

Despite these efforts, behavioral services— both preventive and therapeutic—still are not adequately identified, provided, or arranged by primary care practitioners. They also are not adequately promoted by health care systems. Brief screening instruments for alcohol and drug problems, for example, have been available for a number of years but are not widely used by practicing physicians (Duszynski, Nieto, & Vanente, 1995; National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University, 2000). In a 2002 review, Garnick et al. (2002) conducted a telephone survey covering 434 MCOs in 60 market areas nationwide and secured useful responses from 92 percent of them. Only 14.9 percent of MCOs required any alcohol, drug, or mental health screening by primary care practitioners. Slightly more than half distributed practice guidelines that addressed mental illness, and approximately one third distributed substance use disorder practice guidelines.

DHHS’s 2003 campaign, Steps to a Healthier U.S., focuses on chronic disease prevention and health promotion with the goals of decreasing both the prevalence of certain chronic diseases and the risk factors that allow conditions to develop. This initiative aims to bring together local coalitions to establish model programs and policies that foster health behavior changes, encourage healthier lifestyle choices, and reduce disparities in health care.

In early 2003, SAMHSA published a review of the delivery of behavioral services by managed care organizations, based on 1999 data. This report, The Provision of Mental Health Services in Managed Care Organizations (Horgan et al., 2003), showed substantial variability from plan to plan, as well as substantial variability among health maintenance organizations (HMOs), point- of-service (POS) plans, and preferred provider organizations (PPOs). All MCOs provided behavioral services, but these services usually had limits and copayments that were more restrictive than for comparable medical services. Fewer than 10 percent required screening for behavioral disorders in primary care settings (Horgan et al., 2003).

Another SAMHSA report, also published early in 2003, offers some insight into discrepancies in coverage, comparing medical to behavioral services and discrepancies in policy and coverage, comparing therapeutic to preventive services. This report, titled Medical Necessity in Private Health Plans: Implications for Behavioral Health Care (Rosenbaum, Kamoie, Mauery, & Walitt, 2003), noted that services are covered by health insurance plans only if they are considered a “medical necessity.” The term medical necessity was defined differently for different services within each health plan, with due consideration given for each of the following five domains:

  1. Contractual scope—whether the contract provides any coverage for certain procedures and treatments, such as preventive and maintenance treatments that are not necessary to restore a patient to “normal functioning.” This dimension preempts any other coverage decision.
  2. Standards of practice—whether the treatment (as judged by the health plan) accords with professional standards of practice.
  3. Patient safety and setting—whether the treatment will be delivered in the safest and least intrusive manner.
  4. Medical service—whether the treatment is considered medical as opposed to social or nonmedical.
  5. Cost—whether the treatment is considered cost-effective by the insurer (Rosenbaum et al., 2003).The medical necessity report noted that

Federal or State regulation is limited in covering how health insurance plans define medical necessity (Rosenbaum et al., 2003). This SAMHSA update is intended to build upon the reports noted above to further enhance implementation of preventive behavioral services in health care settings.

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