Citing a Mental Health Crisis Among Young People, California Lawmakers Target Social Media

Citing a mental health crisis among young people, California lawmakers  target social media

Source: Kaiser Health News, by ZInnia Finn

Karla Garcia said her son’s social media addiction started in fourth grade, when he got his own computer for virtual learning and logged on to YouTube. Now, two years later, the video-sharing site has replaced both schoolwork and the activities he used to love — like composing music or serenading his friends on the piano, she said.

“He just has to have his YouTube,” said Garcia, 56, of West Los Angeles.

Alessandro Greco, now 11 and a soon-to-be sixth grader, watches videos even when he tells his mom that he is starting homework, making his bed, or practicing his instrument. When she confronts him, she said, he gets frustrated and says he hates himself because he feels like watching YouTube isn’t a choice.

Alessandro tells her he just can’t pull himself away, that he is addicted.

“It’s vicious — they’ve taken away my parenting ability,” Garcia said. “I can’t beat this.”

Some California lawmakers want to help Garcia and other parents protect their children’s mental health by targeting website elements they say were designed to hook kids — such as personalized posts that grab and hold viewers on a specific page, frequent push notifications that pull users back to their devices, and autoplay functions that provide a continuous stream of video content.

Two complementary bills in the state legislature would require websites, social media platforms, or online products that children use — or could use — to eliminate features that can addict them, harvest their personal information, and promote harmful content. Those that don’t comply could face lawsuits and hefty fines. One of the measures would impose penalties of up to $7,500 per affected child in California — which could amount to millions of dollars.

Federal lawmakers are making a similar push with bills that would tighten children’s privacy protections and target features that foster addiction. One would require online platforms to provide tools to help parents track and control their children’s internet use. The measures were approved by a U.S. Senate committee July 27.

“We have to protect kids and their developing brains,” said California Assembly member Jordan Cunningham (R-San Luis Obispo), a lead author of both bills and a father of four children, at a committee hearing in June. “We need to end Big Tech’s era of unfettered social experimentation on children.”

But Big Tech remains a formidable foe, and privacy advocates say they are concerned one of the California measures could increase data intrusions for everyone. Both bills have cleared the state Assembly, but whether they will survive the state Senate is unclear.

Tech companies, which wield immense power in Sacramento, say they already prioritize users’ mental health and are making efforts to strengthen age verification mechanisms. They are also rolling out parental controls and prohibiting messaging between minors and adults they don’t know.

But these bills could violate companies’ free speech rights and require changes to websites that can’t realistically be engineered, said Dylan Hoffman, executive director of TechNet for California and the Southwest. TechNet — a trade association for tech companies, including Meta (the parent company of Facebook and Instagram) and Snap Inc. (which owns Snapchat) — opposes the measures.

“It’s an oversimplified solution to a complex problem, and there isn’t anything we can propose that will alleviate our concerns,” Hoffman said about one of the bills that specifically targets social media.

Last year, the U.S. surgeon general, Dr. Vivek Murthy, highlighted the nation’s youth mental health crisis and pointed to social media use as a potential contributor. Murthy said social media use in teenagers had been linked to anxiety and depression — even before the stress of covid-19. Then during the pandemic, he said, the average amount of teenagers’ non-academic screen time leaped from almost four hours a day to nearly eight.

“What we’re trying to do, really, is just keep our kids safe,” Assembly member Buffy Wicks (D-Oakland), another lead author of the California bills and a mother of two children, said at the June committee hearing.

One of Cunningham and Wicks’ bills, AB 2273, would require all online services “likely to be accessed by a child” — which could include most websites — to minimize the collection and use of personal data for users younger than 18. This includes setting default privacy settings to the maximum level unless users prove they are 18 or older, and providing terms and service agreements in language a child can understand.

Modeled after a law passed in the United Kingdom, the measure also says companies should “consider the best interests of children when designing, developing, and providing that service, product, or feature.” That broad phrasing could allow prosecutors to target companies for features that are detrimental to children. This could include incessant notifications that demand children’s attention or suggestion pages based on a child’s activity history that could lead to harmful content. If the state attorney general determines a company has violated the law, it could face a fine of up to $7,500 per affected child in California.

The other California bill, AB 2408, would allow prosecutors to sue social media companies that knowingly addict minors, which could result in fines of up to $250,000 per violation. The original version would also have allowed parents to sue social media companies, but lawmakers removed that provision in June in the face of opposition from Big Tech.

Together, the two California proposals attempt to impose some order on the largely unregulated landscape of the internet. If successful, they could improve kids’ health and safety, said Dr. Jenny Radesky, an assistant professor of pediatrics at the University of Michigan Medical School and a member of the American Academy of Pediatrics, a group that supports the data protection bill.

“If we were going to a playground, you’d want a place that had been designed to let a child explore safely,” Radesky said. “Yet in the digital playground, there’s a lot less attention to how a child might play there.”

Radesky said she has witnessed the effects of these addictive elements firsthand. One night, as her then-11-year-old son was getting ready for bed, he asked her what a serial killer was, she said. He told her he had learned the term online when videos about unsolved murder mysteries were automatically recommended to him after he watched Pokémon videos on YouTube.

Adam Leventhal, director of the University of Southern California Institute for Addiction Science, said YouTube recommendations, and other tools that mine users’ online history to personalize their experiences, contribute to social media addiction by trying to keep people online as long as possible. Because developing brains favor exploration and pleasurable experiences over impulse control, kids are especially susceptible to many of social media’s tricks, he said.

“What social media offers is a highly stimulating, very fast feedback,” Leventhal said. “Any time that there is an activity where you can get a pleasurable effect and get it fast and get it when you want it, that increases the likelihood that an activity could be addictive.”

Rachel Holland, a spokesperson for Meta, explained in a statement that the company has worked alongside parents and teens to prioritize kids’ well-being and mitigate the potential negative effects of its platforms. She pointed to a variety of company initiatives: In December 2021, for example, it added supervision tools on Instagram that allow parents to view and limit kids’ screen time. And in June, it started testing new age verification tactics on Instagram, including asking some users to upload a video selfie.

Snap spokesperson Pete Boogaard said in a statement that the company is protecting teens through steps that include banning public accounts for minors and turning location-sharing off by default.

Meta and Snap declined to say whether they support or oppose the California bills. YouTube and TikTok did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Privacy groups are raising red flags about the measures.

Eric Null, director of the privacy and data project at the Center for Democracy and Technology, said the provision in the data protection bill that requires privacy agreements to be written in age-appropriate language would be nearly impossible to implement. “How do you write a privacy policy for a 7-year-old? It seems like a particularly difficult thing to do when the child can barely read,” Null said.

And because the bill would limit the collection of children’s personal information — but still require platforms that children may access to gather enough details to verify a user’s age — it could increase data intrusions for all users, he said. “This is going to further incentivize all online companies to verify the age of all of their users, which is somewhat counterintuitive,” Null said. “You’re trying to protect privacy, but actually you’re now requiring a lot more data collection about every user you have.”

But Karla Garcia is desperate for action.

Thankfully, she said, her son doesn’t watch violent videos. Alessandro prefers clips from “America’s Got Talent” and “Britain’s Got Talent” and videos of one-hit wonders. But the addiction is real, she said.

Garcia hopes legislators will curtail the tech companies’ ability to continually send her son content he can’t turn away from.

“If they can help, then help,” Garcia said. “Put some sort of regulations on and stop the algorithm, stop hunting my child.”

Employee Productivity Is Up, But So Is Burnout

Employee productivity, stress, burnout are all up among remote workers |  BenefitsPRO

Source: BenefitsPRO, by Jessica Mach

Remote work has resulted in a boost in productivity, according to a new report, but worker burnout has also skyrocketed.

That’s according to a survey of 175 HR executives in the U.S. recently released by The Conference Board.

Sixty-two percent of organizations with primarily remote workforces said they’ve seen productivity grow since the start of the pandemic, the report said. While organizations that have on-site work policies also have reported productivity increases, this was the case for only 47% of respondents.

At the same time, 77% of respondents say they’ve seen an increase in employees who identify as burned out—up from 42% in September 2020.

Employees are also using fewer vacation days, feeling less engaged, and have lower morale. More are seeking support for their mental health as they work a greater number of hours.

“Since the outbreak of the pandemic, employee well-being has declined and burnout is on the rise,” said Rebecca Ray, executive vice president of human capital at The Conference Board.

“To retain workers, HR leaders will need a strong focus on improving the employee experience. That includes both allowing and encouraging employees to integrate their work and personal lives in a way that works best for them.”

Respondents did note some areas of improvement in organizational culture, however.

More than 70% of respondents said that since the start of the pandemic, commitment to corporate social responsibility, genuine caring by managers, transparent communication by leaders, and collaborative technology have changed for the better.

Meanwhile, more than 60% of respondents said they’ve seen improvements in the quality of leadership at their organizations, as well as inclusivity, commitment to innovation, and articulation of mission and purpose.

However, 25% of respondents said the level of trust between organization leaders and employees has declined since the start of pandemic.

Ninth Circuit Overturns Behavioral Health Care Rulings That Required Insurer To Reconsider Thousands Of Claims

Ninth Circuit overturns behavioral health care rulings that required insurer  to reconsider thousands of claimsSource: San Francisco Chronicle, by Bob Egelko

A federal appeals court has overturned rulings that would have required an insurer to reconsider its denials of tens of thousands of claims for mental health, drug and alcohol care.In decisions in 2019 and 2020, Chief U.S. Magistrate Judge Joseph Spero of San Francisco said United Behavioral Health, which manages mental health services for insurance giant UnitedHealthcare, had acted “to protect its bottom line” by using its own restrictive criteria to deny claims in multiple states from 2011 to 2017. He said the company then “lied to state regulators” and made misleading statements during a nonjury trial in his court.

Spero ordered the company, under supervision by a court-appointed monitor, to reconsider about 67,000 claims from 50,000 patients, using “generally accepted standards of care” adopted by behavioral health professionals and their organizations.

But on Monday, the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco said the insurance policies United Behavioral Health was administering allowed the company to use its own reasonable criteria for coverage.

“UBH’s interpretation — that the (insurance) Plans do not require consistency with GASC (generally accepted standards of care) — was not unreasonable,” the three-judge panel said.

“The Plans exclude coverage for treatment inconsistent with the GASC,” the court said. But the patients in a class-action suit “did not show that the Plans mandate coverage for all treatment that is consistent with the GASC.”

In response, UnitedHealthcare, the parent company of UBH, said in a statement, “we are pleased with the court’s ruling and continue to support our members with the mental health support they need, when they need it, as part of our broader commitment to accessible, quality care.”

Lawyers for the plaintiffs have not responded to requests for comment.

The ruling comes at a time of increasing anxiety, stress and other psychiatric impacts of the coronavirus pandemic.

The American Psychiatric Association, which filed arguments supporting the plaintiffs’ case, said it was “extremely disappointed in the Ninth Circuit’s ruling, particularly as the nation faces a mental health and substance use disorder crisis in the aftermath of COVID-19.” The group said Congress and state legislatures should pass laws based on Spero’s ruling “to ensure fair and equitable treatment of patients with mental health and/or substance use disorders and hold insurance companies accountable.”

In another filing on the plaintiffs’ side, state Attorney General Rob Bonta’s office cited a study as saying two-thirds of Californians reported they or a close family member had been denied mental health services they sought.

Other medical organizations and President Biden’s Labor Department also filed arguments supporting the plaintiffs, while the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and insurance groups argued in support of United Behavioral Health.

During the trial before Spero, a mental health professional testified for the company that its criteria for coverage were actually consistent with the generally accepted standards of care. But Spero said in his ruling that the generally accepted standards mandated treatment that was “reasonably necessary” to keep a patient’s mental health from declining, while United Behavioral Health required “compelling evidence” that the treatment was needed.

The company’s policies favored “crisis stabilization” and did not provide coverage once a mental health crisis had passed, even though the underlying condition still existed, Spero said. He said its practices showed that “its financial self-interest was a critical consideration.”

But the appeals court said that even if the company had a financial conflict of interest, it was entitled to use its own standards under the terms of the insurance plans. The court said Spero should not have substituted his own “interpretation of the Plans for UBH’s.”

The panel consisted of Judges Morgan Christen and Danielle Forrest and U.S. District Judge Michael Anello of San Diego, temporarily assigned to the appeals court.

Biden Budget Plan Prioritizes Mental Health, Public Health

Biden proposes nearly 27% funding increase for HHS | Modern Healthcare

Source: Modern Healthcare, Maya Goldman

The Health and Human Services Department would get a 26.8% spending boost in fiscal 2023 under a budget proposal the White House issued Monday.

The budget plan outlines President Joe Biden’s health priorities, which include improving public health infrastructure, advancing mental healthcare and making maternal health more equitable.

Biden is asking Congress to authorize $127.3 billion in discretionary funding for HHS, or $26.9 billion more than the department’s allotment for fiscal 2021. The White House compared its budget proposals to fiscal 2021 because Congress only passed fiscal 2022 appropriations earlier this month.

 

White House budget requests tend to function as presidential wish lists and Congress is unlikely to adopt the majority of Biden’s proposals. The president’s latest budget departs from the slate of proposals he offered last year on making healthcare more affordable and accessible for patients that largely stalled in Congress.

The fiscal 2023 plan continues to highlight Biden’s support for legislation to reduce the cost of prescription drugs, health insurance and long-term care and to promote health coverage for uninsured people. The budget contains few details on those priorities, however.

Instead, the White House plan emphasizes preparation for the next public health crisis. Biden requests $81.7 billion for future threat responses and $9.9 billion to build public health capacity.

This request is separate from the COVID-19 funding the Biden administration has urged Congress to pass after lawmakers left pandemic relief money out of the fiscal 2022 spending bill.

The fiscal 2023 preparedness funding request “is a drop in the bucket compared to what it’s cost so far to deal with COVID,” HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra said at a news conference Monday. “We hope that we’re given the chance to make those long-term investments, preparing for the long game.”

Biden proposes $51.7 billion to improve the mental health system, including $7.5 billion for workforce development and service expansion and $35.4 billion to enhance mental health access for Medicaid enrollees.

The White House seeks $3.5 billion to improve mental health access for Medicare beneficiaries by modernizing fee-for-service benefits, covering three behavioral health visits per year without cost sharing, eliminating the 190-day lifetime limit on psychiatric hospital care and imposing mental health parity rules.

The budget would require health insurers to cover mental healthcare with adequate provider networks and to ensure parity in coverage between behavioral health and medical benefits. Biden wants Congress to appropriate $275 million for the Labor Department to enforce mental health coverage rules among large-group health plans.

The White House plan also calls for extending Medicare coverage of telehealth following the COVID-19 pandemic. Congress already authorized a 151-day extension to take effect after Biden decides not to renew the federal public health emergency declaration.

Additionally, the budget outlines a new federal program that would provide free vaccines to uninsured adults, which the administration expects would reduce disparities in vaccinations. The administration also proposes shifting all vaccine benefits for Medicare enrollees to Part B, a shift from current policy that covers some under Part D.

The budget proposes an initiative to provide PrEP, or pre-exposure prophylaxis for HIV, to uninsured and underinsured people at no cost. The plan includes $850 million for HHS to reduce new HIV cases, increase access to PrEP, and make support for HIV patients more equitable.

The budget builds on the administration’s maternal health initiatives by requesting $470 million to reduce maternal mortality and morbidity rates, expand maternal healthcare in rural communities, implement implicit bias training for healthcare providers and more. Biden also aims to secure $400 million, a nearly 40% increase from 2021, for the Title X Family Planning program, which funds services for low-income people.

Biden requests $5 billion for the Advanced Research Projects Agency for Health, a program to advance healthcare research that Congress created this month with a $1 billion budget. The White House wants $92 million to fund the Cancer Moonshot that Biden initiated as President Barack Obama’s vice president, which aims to halve cancer deaths over 25 years.

HHS and the Justice Department also request $899 million for healthcare fraud and abuse control.

Mercer: 3 Ways Employers Can Continue To Enhance Benefits Options

Mercer: 3 ways employers can continue to enhance benefits options |  FierceHealthcareSource: Fierce Healthcare, by Paige Minemyer

Employer health supports have a meaningful impact on workers’ resilience and well-being, according to a new survey from Mercer.

The survey found that the pandemic did significant damage to the mental, physical and financial health of workers. For example, more than half said they experienced some kind of stress in the past year, and one-fifth said they were less financially well off than before the pandemic began.

However, 53% said their employer offered effective support through COVID-19, and these workers were less likely to feel the pandemic’s impacts as mostly or wholly negative, according to the survey.

“There is nothing more important to the health of a business than the health of its people and the communities in which that business operates. COVID-19 challenged our global healthcare system, but the ability of employers to have a positive impact on employee health and resiliency is one of the most important findings from our 2021 Health on Demand survey,” said Martine Ferland, president and CEO of Mercer, in a statement.

“The research is clear—employers that place health and humanity at the center of business transformation will build a more energized and adaptable workforce that is better able to persevere through periods of crisis,” said Ferland.

The report offers several takeaways for employers looking to further enhance their health supports for employees.

  •  * Offer benefits that are varied and high-value

More than half (55%) of employees surveyed said they find the ability to customize their benefits packages to better suit their individual needs to be either highly or extremely valued. Variety is key to this, Mercer said, as the more options people have, the better they can customize their benefits to their lives.

The survey found that 52% of people offered 10 or more health and well-being benefits or resources said their benefits are a reason to stay with their company. By comparison, 32% of those offered between one and five benefit options said the same.

Workers with access to more benefits also said they felt more confident that they could afford their care, the study found.

  • * Make digital health options accessible

The pandemic significantly drove up telehealth use, and people who did try it say they’re likely to stick with it, the survey found. A fifth of workers said they used telehealth for the first time due to COVID, and 23% said they grew their usage.

Of those who tried telehealth for the first time, 73% said they plan to continue using such services, the survey found.

  • * Many mental health needs remain unmet

Mental health remains a significant healthcare challenge and one that employers are increasingly focused on. Almost half (49%) of U.S.-based respondents said programs that lower the cost of mental health care are highly or extremely valuable.

With behavioral health needs on the rise due to COVID, accessing such care is often difficult, with 40% of those surveyed saying it’s hard to find and access quality mental health care. Among low-income workers, that number rises to 47%.

In keeping with the overall growth in telehealth use, many employees said they value virtual options for mental health care. Forty-two percent said they would value counseling conducted by video chat, and 38% said they would value virtual counseling via text.

Employers Name Mental Health Access As Key Priority: Survey

Employers name mental health access as key priority: survey |  FierceHealthcare

Source: Fierce Healthcare, by Paige Minemyer

Enhancing access to mental health care remains a key priority for employers, a new survey shows.

The Business Group on Health’s annual look at employers’ healthcare attitudes found 76% are making increased access to these services a key priority in 2022. In addition, 57% said they will be focusing on reducing the stigma around mental health needs.

That makes 2022 the first year where more than half of employers are planning to conduct an anti-stigma campaign, the survey found.

“Employers have been working for many years to combat the negative connotation of seeking mental health treatment,” Brenna Shebel, vice president of the Business Group, said on a call with reporters last week. “They are not backing down on this.”

Ellen Kelsay, CEO of the Business Group, said on the call that employers are also thinking of a variety of conditions in this effort, as they’re looking to enhance care for autism spectrum disorders, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder or social anxiety.

Shebel said that, for instance, some employers are launching training programs to help managers spot signs of mental health distress in employees. Managers are then armed with information to direct these workers to help they may need, Shebel said.

The goal isn’t to “train them to be therapists” but to offer a way to potentially get help for a struggling employee more readily, she said.

“We think that will have a real lasting impact for employees and supervisors alike,” Shebel said.

Other key focuses for employers around mental health and well-being include ensuring workers access appropriate treatment, cited by 36% of those surveyed, and burnout, named by 35%.

Twenty-nine percent of employers said they were focusing on the quality of mental health care, and 26% said they were extending their efforts to other family members, such as caregivers or children, according to the survey.

PwC: Mental Health, Telehealth Sectors Spur Robust Deal Activity Despite COVID-19

PwC: Mental health, telehealth sectors spur robust deal activity despite  COVID-19 | FierceHealthcare

Source: Fierce Healthcare, by Robert King

Even though the COVID-19 pandemic continues to roil the healthcare landscape financially, mergers and acquisitions remain robust thanks to heavy interest in the mental health and telehealth sectors, one expert says.

Providers have faced major declines in patient volume since the onset of the pandemic. But experts at the firm PwC say financial constraints haven’t cooled deals in the healthcare space.

“This is an interesting recession with a tremendous amount of liquidity in markets,” said Manoj Mahenthiran, head of the private equity sector practice at PwC, in an interview with Fierce Healthcare. “What we are still seeing is that for the right assets, prices really haven’t gone down.”

A prior report from PwC released in July found that the number of deals among provider and payer industries declined in the first half of the year by 21% compared to the same period in 2019.

But there has been a major shift among certain sectors of the healthcare industry.

One of the hottest sectors is in behavioral health that has taken advantage of new flexibilities for telehealth.

“This whole pandemic has shone a spotlight on some of the mental health issues in the country that may have been taboo in the past,” Mahenthiran said.

Digital behavioral health startups raised $588 million in funding in the first half of this year, according to a report from venture capital fund Rock Health. That was on top of the record $5.4 billion in startup funding for digital health investments overall, the report found.

Investors are still very interested in the telehealth space even though there is uncertainty over what the regulatory outlook will be after the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services gave more flexibility for providers to get Medicare reimbursement from telehealth, and providers embraced the technology to grant access for patients afraid of going to an office or hospital due to the pandemic.

But those flexibilities last through the COVID-19 public health emergency, which was recently extended.

“There is apprehension on what will this post-COVID environment look like and what will happen with reimbursements,” Mahenthiran said of investors in telehealth. “If things are delivered over this medium versus the office medium for sure that is definitely something that weighs on a lot of PE funds that are thinking about entering this space.”

But he countered that the popularity of telehealth will outweigh any changes in reimbursement rates.

“Their view so far is that the volume growth is going to far outweigh any such rate reductions,” Mahenthiran said. “It is definitely part of the calculus.”

Attorney General Becerra Takes Action to Ensure Californians Have Access to Mental Health Care

California joins legal challenge over USPS reductions - Los Angeles Times

Source: EIN Presswire

California Attorney General Xavier Becerra today urged California’s four largest health insurance providers: Anthem Blue Cross, Blue Shield of California, Health Net of California, and Kaiser Permanente, to demonstrate their compliance with state and federal mental health parity laws. In letters addressed to each of the managed care insurance companies, the Attorney General requested information that would help determine if they are providing coverage for mental health benefits and services without putting limitations or conditions on the coverage that are more restrictive than permitted by the law. Equal treatment for mental health conditions in insurance plans is mandated by state and federal laws, including the California Mental Health Parity Act, the federal Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act of 2008, and the Affordable Care Act (ACA). The plans have until November 16, 2020, to voluntarily comply with the information request.

“One out of every six Californians experiences some type of mental illness, which is why it is important to ensure our mental health laws are being followed,” said Attorney General Becerra. “It is the job, mandated by the law, of health insurance providers to make access to care for mental health conditions as accessible as care for a medical illness. Now, when people are seeing their mental health worsen as they navigate the COVID-19 pandemic, is a critical time to ensure those who need it have access to care.”

Despite multiple laws, including the California Mental Health Parity Act and the ACA, which expanded access to mental health treatment across the country, many Californians still struggle to find appropriate mental health treatment. Many Californians with insurance are also exponentially more likely to go out of network for mental health treatment than for medical services. According to a survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation/California Health Care Foundation, two-thirds of the individuals surveyed reported that they or one of their family members sought but were unable to locate mental health services.

In order to investigate mental healthcare coverage, the Attorney General requested documents and information that would ensure Anthem Blue Cross, Blue Shield of California, Health Net of California, and Kaiser Permanente are following mental health parity laws.

A copy of the letter to Anthem Blue Cross is available here. A copy of the letter to Blue Shield of California is available here. A copy of the letter to Health Net of California is available here. A copy of the letter to Kaiser Permanente is available here.

Mercer Forecasts 4.4% Increase In Benefit Costs For 2021

Mercer forecasts 4.4% increase in benefit costs for 2021 | BenefitsPRO

Source: BenefitsPRO, by Danielle Andrus

A new study from Mercer shows that employers are committed to providing their employees with benefits, despite the economic challenges they may be facing.

In a survey of 1,113 employers, Mercer found benefit costs are expected to grow 4.4% on average next year, but uncertainty is driving “wide variations” in estimates.

“Different assumptions about cost for COVID-related care, including a possible vaccine, and whether people will continue to avoid care or catch up on delayed care, are driving wide variations in cost projections for next year,” Tracy Watts, a senior consultant with Mercer, said in a statement.

The projected cost increase is in line with annual growth over the past six years, Mercer found, but far exceeds the Consumer Price Index and wage growth, which are sitting close to zero.

Still, only 18% of employers said they’re shifting some of those costs to workers, according to Mercer. In fact, unlike in the Great Recession, most employers (57%) aren’t making any changes at all.

“This is different from what we saw at the start of the economic recession in 2008, which drove many employers to trim health benefits,” Watts said. “Given all the turmoil employees have been through this year, employers are putting big changes on hold, looking to balance economics with empathy.”

Of the quarter of employers who are planning changes, here’s what they’re considering:

  • * 27% are adding or improving digital health care and telemedicine services, including virtual visits, AI-based triage and texting services.
  • * 22% are enhancing voluntary benefits like critical illness insurance.
  • * 20% are adding or improving behavioral health care benefits.
  • * 16% offer a financial subsidy for in-home child care and 12% have a back-up benefit for child care.

“Many employers are avoiding health plan changes that impact employees this year, but they know managing cost must remain a priority,” Watts noted. “Plan member stress and care avoidance in 2020 may result in higher utilization in 2021, and struggling health systems may seek to recoup lost revenue through higher prices.”

Gov. Newsom Signs Law To Grow Mental Health Coverage

California Governor Gavin Newsom signs signs law to grow mental health  coverage - ABC7 Los Angeles

Source: ABC News

Gov. Gavin Newsom signed a law on Friday that for the first time in California defines “medical necessity,” a move aimed at requiring private health insurance plans to pay for more mental health and drug addiction treatments.

State and federal laws already require health insurance companies to handle mental health treatments the same as physical health treatments. The California Health Benefits Review Program says 99.8% of people enrolled in private health insurance plans have coverage for mental health and substance abuse disorders on par with other medical conditions.

But those laws don’t define what is “medically necessary” to determine which treatments get covered. Because of that, advocates say private insurers often deny coverage for some mental health and drug abuse treatments based on their own restrictive definitions.

The law requires all private insurers to cover medically necessary mental health and drug addiction treatments. The law says when insurance companies decide whether a treatment is medically necessary, they must follow the most recent criteria and guidelines developed by nonprofit professional associations, like the American Society of Addiction Medicine.

State Sen. Scott Wiener, a Democrat from San Francisco and the author of the bill, said many insurance companies refuse mental health or drug addiction treatment for people “by saying it’s not serious enough.” He said that’s like telling a stage one cancer patient they can’t get treated until they are at stage four.

“We would never tolerate that with physical health. Yet we tolerate it with addiction,” he said.

The California Association of Health Plans called it a “misconception” that private insurers wait until people are in crisis before they cover their treatment for mental health or drug addiction. They had asked Newsom to veto the bill, arguing it “recklessly defines medical necessity in a way that will undermine the ability of providers to determine what is clinically appropriate for their patients.”

Newsom acknowledged that pressure during a virtual bill signing ceremony on Friday, saying “not everybody is happy with us.”

“I got a lot of folks that wanted to pull the plug on this Zoom call today, but we’re doing it because we’re zooming into the future,” Newsom said.

The new law takes effect Jan. 1, and it comes as Californians are dealing with a coronavirus pandemic, a reckoning over racial injustice and massive wildfires that have destroyed homes and businesses while turning the air toxic.

Arthur Evans, CEO of the American Psychological Association, says the group’s annual “Stress in America” survey has shown the highest stress levels since the survey began in 2007.

“All of that really emphasizes the need to have access to not only adequate care but to really have access to excellent care just because we know the need is significant right now,” he said.

Joe Parks, medical director for the National Council on Behavioral Health, called the law the first comprehensive reform in the country. He said he hoped it would “encourage other states to fill the gaps that they have with this legislation.”

The bill was one of more than a dozen health-related measures Newsom signed on Friday. The bills included one authored by Sen. Jim Beall, a Democrat from San Jose, that sets standards for peer support specialists – people who have suffered from mental health or drug addiction and want to counsel others experiencing the same problems. The bill also authorizes the state’s Medicaid program to seek permission from the federal government to cover peer support specialists.

Similar bills have been vetoed twice before by previous governors. It’s one of the final bills authored by Beall to become law as the senator is leaving office this year because of term limits.

“The pandemic has really changed the public’s view on this. We now have a pandemic of despair going on,” Beall said, adding that the bill “adds proven mental health resources when we need it most.”

Last Updated 08/10/2022

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