Behavioral Treatment Tied to Lower Medical, Pharmacy Costs

Outpatient behavioral health treatment (OPBHT) for patients newly diagnosed with depression, substance use disorder, or other behavioral health condition (BHC) is cost-effective.

Results of a large retrospective study showed that patients newly diagnosed with a BHC who receive OPBHT following diagnosis incur lower medical and pharmacy costs over roughly the next 1 to 2 years compared with peers who don’t receive OPBHT.

“Our findings suggest that promoting OPBHT as part of a population health strategy is associated with improved overall medical spending, particularly among adults,” the investigators write.

The study was published online December 6 in JAMA Network Open.

Common, Undertreated

Nearly a quarter of adults in the US have a BHC, and they incur greater medical costs than those without a BHC. However, diagnosis of a BHC is often delayed, and most affected individuals receive little to no treatment.

In their cost analysis, Johanna Bellon, PhD, and colleagues with Evernorth Health, Inc, St. Louis, Missouri, analyzed commercial insurance claims data for 203,401 US individuals newly diagnosed with one or more BHCs between 2017 and 2018.

About half of participants had depression and/or anxiety, 11% had substance use or alcohol use disorder, and 6% had a higher-acuity diagnosis, such as bipolar disorder, severe depression, eating disorder, psychotic disorder, or autism spectrum disorder.

About 1 in 5 (22%) had at least one chronic medical condition along with their BHC.

The researchers found that having at least one OPBHT visit was associated with lower medical and pharmacy costs during 15- and 27-month follow-up periods.

Over 15 months, the adjusted mean per member per month (PMPM) medical/pharmacy cost was $686 with no OPBHT visit compared with $571 with one or more OPBHT visits.

Over 27 months, the adjusted mean PMPM was $464 with no OPBHT, vs $391 with one or more OPBHT visits.

Dose-Response Effect

In addition, there was a “dose-response” relationship between OPBHT and medical/pharmacy costs, such that estimated cost savings were significantly lower in the treated vs the untreated groups at almost every level of treatment.

“Our findings were also largely age independent, especially over 15 months, suggesting that OPBHT has favorable effects among children, young adults, and adults,” the researchers report.

“This is promising given that disease etiology and progression, treatment paradigms, presence of comorbid medical conditions, and overall medical and pharmacy costs differ among the three groups,” they say.

Notably, the dataset largely encompassed in-person OPBHT, because the study period preceded the transition into virtual care that occurred in 2020.

However, overall use of OPBHT was low ― older adults, adults with lower income, individuals with comorbid medical conditions, and persons of racial and ethnic minorities were less likely to receive OPBHT, they found.

“These findings support the cost-effectiveness of practitioner- and insurance-based interventions to increase OPBHT utilization, which is a critical resource as new BHC diagnoses continue to increase,” the researchers say.

“Future research should validate these findings in other populations, including government-insured individuals, and explore data by chronic disease category, over longer time horizons, by type and quality of OPBHT, by type of medical spending, within subpopulations with BHCs, and including virtual and digital behavioral health services,” they suggest.

The study had no specific funding. The authors have disclosed no relevant financial relationships.

JAMA Netw Open. Published online December 6, 2022. Full text

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