May is Mental Health Awareness Month and today, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services announced that they are launching a new mental health initiative which will provide increased access to key mental health resources to millions of Americans. This comes at a time when 90% of Americans feel that the country is experiencing a mental health crisis and will build on the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline that was launched in 2020.
Mental health and businesses are not mutually exclusive. A survey of more than 2,000 business owners across 13 industries found that 20% are experiencing poor mental health and over 50% suffered from depression. In addition, research that the Public Private Strategies Institute performed with support from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, showed small business leaders top four most important healthcare issues are cost-related. We also know that the private sector is acutely aware of the health impacts of social isolation and loneliness. For example, Eventbrite has launched the Social Connection Project, which is focused on helping people feel less isolated and more connected through the power of live experiences.
I recently had the opportunity to interview Xavier Becerra, United States Secretary of Health and Human Services, on his Department’s efforts to combat the mental health crisis that the country is facing, as well as initiatives that HHS is taking to control the cost of healthcare for Americans and business owners. Below is a summary of our conversation, edited for clarity.
Rhett Buttle: It’s been just over two years since you were sworn in as Secretary. Tell us about the experience and what you feel you’ve accomplished.
Secretary Becerra: We’ve wanted to make a difference and the President has given us a lot of energy and a lot of wind underneath our wings to do so. It’s great to be able to say under this administration and under this President, there are more Americans who have coverage for healthcare than ever before in the history of the country; more than 300 million people. It’s great to say that the Affordable Care Act marketplace has broken records from a low at the end of the previous administration – about 11.4 million people who got their insurance through Obamacare – to now close to 16.5 million people. More than 700 million vaccines have been injected into arms under this administration. That is why today we are on the verge of declaring the public health emergency ended, and why Americans can go about their business almost as they did before Covid.
So overall, we feel pretty good. The price of prescription drugs is also going down, and insulin is at $35 a month for Medicare beneficiaries. There are more drug negotiations to come, and the work we are doing now on behavioral health has increased awareness of the need for mental health and substance abuse services. I think that 988 and its launch was a great success and the fact that people are using it is a sign of that.
Now we’re going to launch something that we think is going to make a big difference as well, a website where folks can get support and figure out how to navigate the mental health systems better. Findsupport.gov is going to be out there for folks to help them or someone they love get the mental health services they need.
Rhett Buttle: Can you tell us more about Findsupport.gov and what it means for businesses?
Secretary Becerra: When 90% of the country tells you that America is experiencing a mental health crisis, you know you’ve got to do more. We’re going to do all we can to help state and local governments who really are the ones that control and dictate what we do on mental health. Even though 988 is managed on the state and local level, we helped set it up as a nationwide program. We intend to build on that. Our overarching goal is that anyone who is looking to help themselves or someone they love can access mental health services.
No one wants to wait until they’re about to commit suicide to get help; that’s why 988 has been so successful. Findsupport.gov will help people who aren’t yet at that stage where they need 988, or if they think someone they love is approaching the need for 988. Findsupport.gov will also be a great way to direct them to the right resources so that they never have to reach the stage where they have to call that emergency lifeline.
Rhett Buttle: What new resources or implementation strategies will be introduced through this new initiative for consumers and businesses?
Secretary Becerra: In addition to Findsupport.gov, there are the new behavioral health crisis centers that are becoming available around the country. That was recently started and expanded by Congress through the Inflation Reduction Act. We’re going to be able to make sure that people who need that mental health care can get it, because the need for mental health doesn’t only come in the 9 to 5 hours. This way we can have services available to folks on a 24/7 basis. In addition, we’re implementing new initiatives such as a text feature that didn’t exist before, a robust lifeline for native Spanish speakers, and efforts to ensure that veterans have access to 988.
We’re also going into schools so that we are not waiting until a crisis becomes so acute that young people are committing suicide. Project Aware is working with schools to make sure that we get to kids early. We have another project that helps guide parents whose children are going through high-level stress called the National Child Traumatic Stress Initiative, which essentially gathers professionals and experts to be available. We’ve also invested more than a billion and a half dollars in child health care and the mental health space over the last two years.
Rhett Buttle: As you know, businesses are struggling with the rising price of healthcare, and looking for policymakers to take actions to control costs. What should employers know about your controlling healthcare costs, and controlling drug costs through the Inflation Reduction Act?
Secretary Becerra: The price of prescription drugs is going down and insulin is at $35 a month for Medicare beneficiaries and that’s a big thing. There are more drug negotiations to come, and I think the work we are doing now on behavioral health has increased awareness for the need to put mental health and substance abuse services on the map. By some estimates, the most recent statistics show the cost of major depressive disorders is over $300 million dollars. That means that people at home or in the workplace are not able to function at their highest performance, which means our economy could get better if people got the help they needed.
One of the things that we’re doing is making sure that whether it’s through 988, Findsupport.gov, or recruiting and increasing the pipeline of health care professionals that are going into mental health, we are making it easier for Americans to access the care that they need. With expanded insurance, employers now are more confident that their workers can not only receive the physical healthcare they need, but mental healthcare as well to perform at the highest levels within the workforce.
Rhett Buttle: What are your goals for the department for the rest of 2023?
Secretary Becerra: I think it’s important that we try to keep Americans healthy. Keeping Americans healthy keeps our economy healthy. If we have a major episode or outbreak of Covid hit this country again, everyone knows the consequences of having to stay at home, close down businesses, and worry about educating our children. All of those things are the kind of nightmare no one wants to experience again, so it’s our job to work with states to make sure that we don’t.
We are transitioning to commercialized access to vaccines, which means going back to a traditional way of getting vaccines through your health insurance. For Americans who have insurance, we just have to make sure we document and make sure they’re getting the vaccine through their insurance companies. But for those who are underinsured or uninsured, we want to make sure that everyone has access to the vaccines and treatments that they need, so that we can continue to keep them healthy and our economy healthy.
We are also continuing to work towards lowering prescription drug costs and trying to expand the reach of Obamacare so we can continue to reach those who are uninsured and underinsured. For a lot of Americans who rely on Medicaid, we are going to work with states as we transition out of the public health emergency to ensure that millions of Americans do not lose access to healthcare because they didn’t know that they now qualify for Obamacare or insurance through their new employer, or that they just have to reapply. We are going to continue working with our state partners and the business community to make sure that everyone in America stays healthy so our economy stays healthy.
Resource: In addition to the work being done by HHS above, the Department Of Labor announced a Mental Health at work portal this week as well.
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