When Medicaid Pays the Bills

By Stoil, Michael J. | Behavioral Healthcare, January 2006 | Go to article overview
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When Medicaid Pays the Bills


Stoil, Michael J., Behavioral Healthcare


Behavioral healthcare providers have suffered as Medicaid has become the dominant public-sector payer

Agency leaders in the Department of Health and Human Services have taken exception to statements that federal programs are financing a declining portion of mental healthcare. They point out that Medicaid overshadows traditional mental health block grants as the principal public-sector funding source for this care. If federal contributions to Medicaid are counted, then Washington's financing of public-sector behavioral healthcare is indeed growing.

State budget officers and legislators might disagree with the perspective that federal support is growing. Traditional mental health block grants are lump-sum payments to all states by the federal government, based on total state population. In contrast, Medicaid is a state government option for which the federal government provides funding support. State revenues fund roughly 40% of all Medicaid services, and state policies generally determine residents' eligibility for the program. Moreover, states can choose to participate in Medicaid or withdraw from the program; for example, Arizona opted out of Medicaid for the program's first 20 years.

However, Medicaid's growing domination of public sector mental healthcare is real and was charted several years ago in a SAMHSA-funded study conducted by The Medstar Group and The Lewin Group. The study's authors, Drs. Rosanna Coffey and Tami Mark, wrote that Medicaid funded slightly more than one-third of all state and local mental healthcare services in 1987. Less than 12 years later, Medicaid became the reimbursement source for most of public-sector mental healthcare. The study projects that Medicaid will account for two-thirds of all state and local mental healthcare spending by 2017. In contrast, the mental health services block grant to states that operates under SAMHSAs supervision accounts for fewer than two cents of every dollar spent by states and local governments on mental health.

According to Jeffrey A. Buck, PhD, associate director for organization and financing of the SAMHSA Center for Mental Health Services, differences between Medicaid and block-grant funding go far beyond the question of which government pocket the money comes from. U.S. behavioral healthcare policy traditionally has assumed that state governments have a legitimate interest in determining what types of mental health and substance abuse care are made available to low-income residents. In the "bad old days," this meant that most state governments invested behavioral health resources in state-run hospitals and asylums. During - the 1960s and 1970s, public behavioral healthcare funds were shifted by state and federal policy to community mental health centers and to nonprofit providers operating outpatient programs in lowincome neighborhoods.

But the growing dominance of Medicaid reimbursement ironically weakens the government's ability to target behavioral healthcare funds to preferred providers. Medicaid does not earmark funding for mental health. Rather, it reimburses "any willing provider" for delivery of a wide range of healthcare services and supplies, which may include medication and clinical care for behavioral health problems. "Any willing provider" means that the patient-or a Medicaid HMO-effectively determines who will be reimbursed by Medicaid for the delivery of behavioral health services.

In practice, this system works to the disadvantage of behavioral healthcare providers. Medicaid expects clinicians to quantify each service delivered to each patient. An outpatient practice that provides a typically eclectic mix of individual, group, and family therapy represents an accounting nightmare for the fee-for-service-oriented Medicaid auditors. Less clinical interventions, such as art therapy and peer counseling, present additional challenges for Medicaid reimbursement.

In contrast, primary care physicians, pediatricians, and general purpose hospitals tend to be winners in the reimbursement sweepstakes because they are familiar with Medicaid practices and focus narrowly on clinical services for the individual patient.

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