How to build better behavioral health networks

Updated on April 22, 2023
Teenage Girl Visits Doctor's Office Suffering With Depression

More than 50 million Americans live with or experience mental illness, according to Mental Health America. This leads to increased disability claims, missed experiences, premature death and even suicide. 

It’s a problem that needs a solution. Thankfully, recent legislation and federal investments have been made in pursuit of better support and resources for those suffering from mental illness and depression. 

Added funding and other resources do ease many of the difficulties health plans face when building better behavioral health networks. However, there are still challenges associated with increasing overall numbers of in-network behavioral health providers, especially when ensuring diversity among these providers. 

What needs to be done to build better behavioral networks? 

Increased provider numbers 

According to the Department of Health and Human Services, 155 million Americans are living in designated Mental Health Professional Shortage Areas. This growing problem, caused by above-average age and below-average salaries among mental health professionals, makes it increasingly difficult for healthcare plans to provide their members with adequate coverage. 

Telehealth services can help to ease this burden. While post-pandemic telemedicine has returned to a lower rate of 5% overall, mental health services have remained high – a rate of 40% according to the Kaiser Family Foundation. The ability to access remote care eases the burden for those who would need to travel in order to receive the care that they need.  For providers, it reduces burnout caused by long commutes and even enabling access to a more specialized subset of patients. 

With the lack of overall providers, health plans are still working to increase access by adding in-network providers. In fact, according to a recent AHIP survey, the number of in-network behavioral health providers increased by 48% in the last three years among commercial health plans. 

Increased access to existing providers

However, added in-network providers will not solve the problem alone. There are additional challenges in finding a mental health professional. From long wait lists to lack of information as to what providers are in network, patients can often grow tired of waiting – traveling long distances and paying the high out-of-pocket costs for out of network care. 

They might even give up in seeking care altogether. 

Because of this, building better behavioral health networks requires not only more in-network providers, but also accurate, up-to-date provider directories. These directories make it easier for those struggling with their mental health to find in-network providers they can access through their health plan without adding further stress. 

Provider Network Management Solutions help health plans to build, maintain and organize provider data. With complex networks, added government mandates and calls to improve efficiencies, benefits coverage and satisfaction benchmarks, while also reducing operations costs, automated network management solutions enable these outcomes with minimal internal efforts.  This accurate and up-to-date information removes a key barrier to accessing mental health care.  

Increased collaboration

Building better behavioral health networks requires a concerted effort from everyone. State and federal governments must increase funding for mental health professional trainings. Medical programs must increase their number of residency spots. Health plans must continue to increase numbers of in-network providers and their diversity. Provider network management must enable easier access for those who need these services. 

Without one of these pieces, we cannot ensure the access Americans need, expect and deserve. 

There have been significant improvements to mental health care prioritization in recent years. 78% of health plans have increased their reimbursement rates for behavioral health providers, and 83% are recruiting diverse providers. 2020 legislation increased the number of Medicare-supported psychiatry residency spots for the first time in decades, according to the Association of American Medical Colleges.

The mental health crisis in America will not be solved overnight, but it is crucial we maximize the efforts that have been made.  Provider network management solutions use automated and efficient processes to provide payers and patients with real-time, accurate provider data. For health plans who are adding new providers, this shortens and streamlines the onboarding process as well by automating credentialing and contracting as well. 

By enabling accurate provider directories, technology provides further improvements and ease of access to the resources and services members expect from their health plans. 

Behavioral health networks play a key role in providing access to mental health services to the millions of Americans who need them. While building better networks will require time and training, the healthcare industry must come together to increase access to existing providers and collaborate on creative solutions while we work to fill the gaps. 

Michael Gardner serves as the Chief Strategy Officer at Virsys12
Michael Gardner
With over 25 years of experience in healthcare, Michael Gardner serves as the Chief Strategy Officer at Virsys12. Combining his experience across payers, large health systems, clinically integrated networks, and ACOs within the healthcare industry with his creativity and problem-solving ability, Gardner will provide industry leadership and knowledge for Virsys12’s growth and market expansions including strategic partnerships and customer relations.
Michael is a Rule 31 Listed General Civil Mediator for the state of Tennessee, an approved General Civil Mediator for the state of Kentucky and was trained in the Harvard Program on Negotiation method, “Getting to Yes” at Belmont University. He received a Bachelor of Science in Healthcare Administration from Western Kentucky University and an MBA, with a concentration in Business Negotiation and Mediation from Belmont University. He is also currently enrolled in Vanderbilt’s EdD program for Leadership and Learning in Organizations.