What’s the Best Way to Enhance Access to Behavioral Health Services? Expand KanCare

By Sheldon Weisgrau | Aug. 20, 2019

In response to recent episodes of gun violence, some Kansas legislators have called for an expansion of mental health services in the state. Although a link between mass shootings and mental illness has not been established, we agree that there is a dire need to enhance the behavioral health treatment system in Kansas (services for mental illness and substance use disorders are collectively known as “behavioral health” care). The best way to do that is to expand KanCare, the state’s Medicaid program.

Nearly one-third of uninsured individuals who would qualify for KanCare expansion experienced mental illness or substance use disorder (SUD) within the last year. Less than 14%, however, received treatment, largely due to a lack of access to affordable care. This lack of care results in serious negative effects for individuals and their communities.

Delays in care significantly worsen outcomes and increase future costs, especially when behavioral health conditions co-occur with other chronic illnesses. In addition, the loss of productivity related to untreated behavioral health needs is substantial, exceeding productivity losses associated with any other category of illness.

Experience in other states shows that Medicaid expansion is associated with a reduction in unmet need for behavioral health services and a significant increase in the likelihood of individuals in need receiving care. Residents of expansion states report reductions in psychological distress and days of poor mental health, as well as increases in self-assessed general health.

Expanding KanCare is also the most cost effective way for the state to enhance behavioral health services. Any state program to directly provide care or increase funding to behavioral health providers would come entirely from state general funds. Medicaid expansion, however, is 90% funded by the federal government and savings in other areas as a result of enhanced treatment, such as the criminal justice system, would largely cover the state’s share.

There is an ample body of evidence that shows that expansion of Medicaid substantially increases the ability of individuals with behavioral health needs to access treatment services. KanCare expansion is the single most impactful policy Kansas legislators can implement to enhance access to and availability of mental health services in the state.

Sheldon Weisgrau is the Alliance for a Healthy Kansas’ Senior Policy Advisor. Contact Sheldon at sheldon@expandkancare.com.