The Norman Transcript

Local news

November 16, 2013

Affordable Care act expands mental care, but some health professionals fear shortage of psychiatrists and psychologists

NORMAN — The Affordable Care Act isn’t just about access to primary care physicians and prescription drugs. It also requires insurers to provide benefits to people with mental illness, emotional disorders and substance abuse problems.

But some health professionals are worried there might not be enough psychiatrists and psychologists to go around.

Under the Affordable Care Act of 2010, widely known as Obamacare, all individual and small group insurance policies sold in Oklahoma and other states must provide a number of essential health benefits, starting Jan. 1.

The essential benefits include mental health and substance abuse services such as individual counseling and psychotherapy.

A separate federal law passed in 2008 requires insurers to provide “parity” between conventional medical care and mental health care. Co-pays, deductibles, and the number of doctor visits and hospital days must be comparable.

Experts say the combined impact of the two laws could be substantial: Mental health and substance abuse benefits will be more generous than they have been in the past, and affordable coverage will be available to more people.

“The main thing ACA does is it provides coverage for people that don’t have coverage,” said Mental Health Commissioner Terri White, who manages Oklahoma’s overloaded mental health and substance abuse programs. “There are a lot of people with mental illness that we serve that don’t have any health coverage.”

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 685,076 of Oklahoma’s 3.7 million residents did not have health insurance last year.

Of those, an estimated 145,000 poor people don’t have much to gain from Obamacare for now. That’s because Oklahoma refused to participate in a Medicaid expansion that would have provided them with low or no-cost coverage, including mental health and substance abuse services.

The law’s biggest immediate impact will be on an estimated 256,000 uninsured Oklahomans above the poverty line who will qualify for federal tax credits if they purchase insurance through the federal marketplace that began operating Oct. 1. Although the marketplace’s launch has been crippled so far by website problems, the Obama administration has promised to fix most of the bugs by Dec. 1.

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