Mental health is one of the mostsignificant health care challenges facing Americans today. Anunseen and often overlooked health care need, it impacts peopleeverywhere — at home, in the workplace and at school. It isestimated that:

  • 1 out of 5 adults in the U.S. experiences a mental illness atsome point in their lives
  • Nearly 10 million adults live with a serious mentalillness
  • One-half of all chronic mental illnesses begin by age 14, whilethree-quarters begin by age 24

The prevalence of mental illness is worrying; however, the factthat so many people are not receiving treatment for it should beeven more concerning. Of those who suffer with a mental illness,nearly three out of five adults and half of children ageseight to 15 didn't receive mental health services in theprevious year. Given the ubiquity of this crisis, why aren't peoplegetting the help they need? Two reasons: the cost of treatment andthe stigma surrounding mental health.

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Related: Let's get real about mental health in theworkplace

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In fact, half of all mental illness patients ranktreatment costs as the primary reason they don't seek help, even ifthey have health insurance.

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Is there a role that employers and benefits brokers can play inbridging the gap between treatment and costs for workers?

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Looking to employer-sponsored benefits forhelp

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Benefits brokers and their clients (employers) can play a majorrole in providing assistance for employees who need treatment formental health issues. Not only would it reduce costs for thecompany, but it would help improve productivity and overallwell-being for their workforce. Presenteeism — the all-too-commonphenomenon of an employee coming to work sick, injured, overlyfatigued or otherwise not operating at normal levels ofproductivity — has been estimated to cost more than $150 billionper year.

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By sponsoring a flexible spending account (FSA), health reimbursement arrangement (HRA), orhealth savings Account (HSA), employers can provide usefulfinancial tools for employees to cover out-of-pocket health carecosts for themselves and their families. A company can offer an FSAor an HRA without meeting any health care requirement. In order tosponsor an HSA, the company must also offer a high deductiblehealth plan (HDHP). Each account has its own benefit for companies,including reduced tax liability, and with the HDHP, lower premiumcosts.

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With FSAs and HSAs, employees make contributions before taxes(up to the IRS-approved limit), saving themselves 30 percent to 40percent; the pre-tax contributions also reduce FICA responsibilityfor the employer. With an HRA, total costs are specific to eachemployer because they fund the account (employees are not allowedto contribute), and the company also receives the tax benefit.

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When employees choose to participate, they can use these CDHbenefit accounts for a wide range of IRS-approved health careexpenses, which include many mental health care treatments andservices.

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Using a CDH account for mental health care

Lower taxable income and a vehicle to save on health care is aboon for the participants, who can use pre-tax dollars towards anextensive list of IRS-approved eligible health care expenses. PerIRS Publication 502, “Medical expenses are thecosts of diagnosis, cure, mitigation, treatment, or prevention ofdisease, and the costs for treatments affecting any part orfunction of the body.” For those living with mental illness, thereare many treatments covered by FSAs and HSAs, including:

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Prescription medications

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Many mental illnesses, including depression, anxiety,obsessive/compulsive, eating disorders and bipolar disorder, can betreated with prescription medication. It is estimated that 1 out ofevery 10 Americans currently takes an antidepressant to help managetheir condition. With a prescription, employees can purchase theirmedications using an employer-sponsored benefits account.

Care provided by a psychiatrist or psychologist

Some types of mental illness require specialized care from apsychiatrist or psychologist, generally through a referral from aprimary care physician.

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Psychiatrists, who are licensed medical doctors, are typicallythe ones who prescribe the antidepressants and other types ofmedications. They may also provide services such aspsychotherapy.

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A psychologist can deliver help for some mental health issuesthrough different modes of behavioral or cognitive therapies.

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Specialized treatments

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In addition to prescription medications and office-based therapyprograms, mental health patients can also seek help fromrehabilitation centers for addiction or other medical problems thatoften accompany mental illness.

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In- and out-patient treatment for alcoholism, drug addiction andother types of substance abuse qualifies as an eligible expense.This includes the cost of meals and lodging for in-patienttreatment, as well as transportation expenses for attendingmeetings of Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous, or similarrecovery groups.

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Acupuncture and hypnosis

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One lesser-known eligible health care expense is acupuncture.Acupuncture is often used to treat people suffering fromdepression, eating disorders and other types of mental illness. Inaddition, with a letter of medical necessity from a physician,mental disorders treated with hypnosis may be paid for with ahealth care benefits account.

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Working together to improve mental health

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With cost as an impediment to seeking treatment for mental health, employers andbrokers have the ability to provide the necessary financial toolsfor workers to get the care they need. A robust benefits plan thatincludes an FSA, HRA or HSA can improve morale, lower costs, andimprove productivity. It's a winning combination in the fight forbetter mental health care.

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Bo Armstrong is a national conference speaker and author ofnumerous white papers and articles on the health care benefitsindustry. As DataPath's Chief Marketing Officer, Bo focuses onidentifying emerging market trends within the benefits industry andadvocating for customers and their needs within DataPath. DataPath,Inc. creates cloud-based technology solutions for FSA, HRA, and HSA administration.

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