Digital Health

The Hidden Cost of Mental Health Inequities

Medicare Advantage

Mental health inequities across the US are racking up an annual tab of over $477 billion, and a new report from Deloitte and the Meharry School of Global Health didn’t offer a particularly rosy forecast given our current trajectory.

If left unchecked, the authors expect the annual burden to reach $1.3 trillion by 2040, a brutal total considering the “avoidable and unnecessary expenses” behind it.

Drawing on data from government agencies and Komodo Health, the researchers identified four primary cost drivers stemming directly from mental health inequities.

  • Avoidable ED utilization resulting from untreated or undertreated mental health conditions. 2024 Expenditures: $5.3B
  • Chronic physical conditions linked to mental health’s role as “the invisible counterpart to physical health.” 2024 Expenditures: $23.9B
  • Productivity loss due to mental health-related unemployment and missed work days. 2024 Expenditures: $116B
  • Premature deaths from suicide, substance use disorders, and mental illness associated with comorbid conditions. 2024 Expenditures: $332.2B

Disadvantaged populations are disproportionately impacted across all four categories due to a “legacy of policies” creating structural inequality, and the report lays out several solutions taking different routes to the same destination: equal access for those who need it most.

  • One way to get there is to address the provider shortage by integrating behavioral care with primary care. Not only do PCPs already manage areas like depression, but they’re also experts in the chronic conditions more prevalent among mental health patients. 
  • From a regulatory standpoint, Congress should look at reimbursement policies that “create unintended barriers to treatment.” A prime example is Medicaid being “woefully underfunded” to ensure access to care for the 40% of nonelderly beneficiaries with a mental health or substance use disorder.

The Takeaway

If the moral argument for addressing mental health inequities wasn’t enough to inspire action, this business argument should be just as compelling to payors and employers. Although the answers to the problem are obviously easier said than done, the report succeeded in framing up the massive cost of not solving it at all.

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