State systems to track availability of psychiatric hospital beds vary

Recognizing the critical need for inpatient hospital and residential mental health and substance use disorder treatment settings, the HHS Office of the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation (ASPE) has released a report that examines how states make information on open beds available to consumers, the impact of effect that inpatient bed tracking has on patient access, and the challenges that remain with inpatient bed tracking systems. The researchers concluded that among the 17 states that track availability of psychiatric hospital beds, only five states allow for public access. In some states, systems to track the availability of psychiatric hospital beds have been challenged by the reluctance of hospitals to update information on open beds frequently enough to be useful given rapid patient turnover (ASPE Report, August 2019).

Need for inpatient bed tracking

ASPE conducted a study to examine how states make information on open beds available to consumers, the impact of effect that inpatient bed tracking had on patient access, and the challenges that remain with inpatient bed tracking systems. Inpatient hospital and residential mental health and substance use disorder (SUD) treatment settings are a critical component of behavioral health services care. Patients may require an inpatient hospital stay when they experience a psychiatric or SUD emergency, pose a threat to themselves or others, and need 24-hour medical monitoring and treatment. In the absence of a bed registry, emergency room staff, patients, or other providers must call multiple hospitals or residential settings to determine if there is a slot available that would be appropriate given the patient’s needs. This results in long waits in emergency departments.

Systems to track openings

The researchers conducted an environmental scan by identifying states that have systems to track openings in behavioral health treatment settings, such as hospital psychiatric beds and residential treatment beds. The study found among the 17 states that tracked this information, only five states allowed public access. The other 12 states kept the information about bed availability behind a firewall and only available to providers. The researchers found significant variation among states in how the registries were operating, the types of behavioral health providers they included, and perceptions of their usefulness. In some states, systems to track the availability of psychiatric hospital beds have been challenged by the reluctance of hospitals to update information on open beds frequently enough to be useful given rapid patient turnover.

Emergency department staff noted that the system does not negate the need for them to call hospitals to confirm that there is still an open bed that is appropriate for the patient’s needs and that relationships among hospitals and emergency departments and other crisis system staff may be more efficient than using the bed registries. However, some states reported that the registries were very helpful in locating open beds as well as in documenting the need for additional psychiatric beds.

Registries that post available openings in SUD residential, detoxification, and other non-hospital-based systems are less common than hospital bed registries. Connecticut has a publicly-facing registry that indicates openings in SUD treatment settings. Interviewees reported that patients with SUDs and providers like the system and find it useful. However, more effort is needed to make patients and family members aware of the system.

Future research

There have been no formal evaluations of the effect of bed registries on access to care. The report concluded that future research could help improve understanding of the characteristics and processes that make the bed registries most useful. Some avenues to explore include: (1) how financial, regulatory, contractual, and policy levers can be used to encourage participation in bed registry systems; (2) how many consumers are using the public registries and how to increase their usage; (3) whether technology can substitute for human data entry to track available treatment beds; and (4) whether registries reduce the time and effort required to locate an appropriate inpatient or residential bed.

Medicaid MCOs ABPs, CHIP join the mental health parity party

CMS finalized proposals to strengthen access to mental health and substance abuse services for beneficiaries of certain Medicaid plans and Children’s Health Insurance Plans (CHIP), an initiative that was originally born out of the Paul Wellstone and Pete Domenici Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act of 2008 (MHPAEA) (P.L. 110-343). The Final rule, published in the Federal Register on March 30, 2016, was announced in connection with President Obama’s attendance at the National Rx Drug Abuse and Heroin Summit. At the same time, CMS released a summary of its “latest efforts to increase access to improve mental health and care for low income individuals, especially in light of the opioid abuse epidemic, which constitute significant health risk and cost drivers in the Medicaid program.”

Legislative and regulatory history

The MHPAEA, which generally requires that health insurance plans treat mental health and substance abuse treatment as they would surgical or medical benefits, amended the Public Health Service Act (PHSA) (42 U.S.C. §6a et seq.) to apply mental health parity requirements to certain Medicaid and CHIP coverage. That is, the MHPAEA requires plans within its scope to offer the same benefits that private health insurance plans offer. Parity requirements under the MHPAEA were expanded through the implementation of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA) (P.L. 111-148), which mandated that parity requirements be applied to qualified health plans (QHPs) and Medicaid non-managed care benchmarks and benchmark equivalent plans.

The new requirements issued as a part of the Final rule, which were first introduced in the Proposed rule, are meant to ensure that Medicaid and CHIP beneficiaries retain parity in regard to this type of treatment regardless of whether the coverage is delivered through a managed care organization (MCO) or alternative plan models. The Final rule made only minor changes to the regulations set forth in the Proposed rule (see CMS Proposed rule would extend mental health parity to Medicaid MCOs, Health Law Daily, April 7, 2010; Proposed rule, 80 FR 19418, April 10, 2015).

Targeted coverage and new requirements

Specifically, the Proposed and Final rules focused on the application of parity requirements under the MHPAEA to the following coverage: (1) Medicaid MCOs; (2) Medicaid benchmark and benchmark-equivalent plans, which are referred to as Medicaid alternative benefit plans (ABPs) in the Final rule; and (3) CHIP. CMS explained that states currently have flexibility in terms of care delivery mechanisms under Medicaid and that states are free to use entities other than MCOs, including prepaid inpatient health plans or prepaid ambulatory health plans, to provide services to beneficiaries. According to CMS, the Final rule, “maintains state flexibility in this area while guaranteeing that Medicaid enrollees are able to access these important mental health and substance abuse services in the same manner as medical benefits.” According to CMS, the Final rule will positively affect over 23 million people who are enrolled in Medicaid MCOs, ABPs, and CHIP.

Pursuant to the Final rule, affected plans will be required to disclose both the information on mental health and substance use disorder benefits as well as determinations of medical necessity for these services whenever the information is requested. Further, the reasons for denial of reimbursement or payment for these types of services must be disclosed by the state.

Other mental health parity initiatives

Besides announcing the release of the Final rule for Medicaid and CHIP mental health and substance abuse treatment parity, the agency also summarized other initiatives that it has promoted to transform the behavioral health system and, specifically, to target the opioid abuse epidemic. These initiatives include:

  • the CMS Innovation Accelerator Program of 2014, which was a new strategic and technical support platform that aimed to improve delivery of substance use disorder treatment to high need and high cost individuals;
  • guidance that explained a new Social Security Act 1115 demonstration opportunity that encouraged the development of full coverage through a continuum of care for beneficiaries with substance abuse issues;
  • information on effective safeguards and options to prevent over-prescribing of opioid pain medication; and
  • information regarding screening and intervention services for children and youth with mental illness and/substance abuse issues.