The dearth of mental health services for individuals in need is a debit our nation has felt for at least twenty years, if not indefinitely. A new national survey of commercial health plans has found that most plans provide online information regarding mental health and substance abuse but few provide clinical services such as counseling via the Internet.

This finding is in contrast to the sophisticated web-based disease management intervention provided by many carriers for physical conditions such as diabetes, congestive heart failure and asthma.

The nationally representative health plan survey, published in Psychiatric Services, and led by Dr. Constance Horgan at Brandeis University, is one of the first to examine the prevalence of health plan-sponsored online resources for behavioral health.

“Our study is part of an ongoing effort to determine how health insurers allocate resources for alcohol and substance abuse treatment—historically an undermet need,” said Horgan.

The survey sampled 60 nationally representative markets and included health maintenance organizations, preferred provider organizations and point-of-service plans.

Most private health plans offered online provider directories; 81 percent offered educational information; two thirds offered behavioral self-assessment tools, and almost half offered online referral. About one-third offered personalized responses to questions or problems. Only two percent offered online counseling.

“Delivering behavioral health services such as counseling certainly raises more complex clinical, professional, privacy, and legal issues, than, for example, offering educational information,” said Horgan.

“At least in the short term, increasing use of Internet-based tools designed to facilitate and complement, rather than replace, traditional clinical services seems most likely.”

Source: Brandeis University