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Study: Obamacare helping more youth to get mental health treatment

More high-risk young people are seeking out mental health care and substance abuse treatment thanks to Obamacare.
Attendees line up at an Affordable Care Act open enrollment event at a public library in LaGrange, Ky., Oct. 21, 2013.
Attendees line up at an Affordable Care Act open enrollment event at a public library in LaGrange, Ky., Oct. 21, 2013.

Young adults have a higher risk of mental health problems and substance abuse -- both issues that the U.S. health care system traditionally has struggled to treat. But according to a new study, the number of high-risk youth seeking and receiving affordable care is on the rise, thanks to an Obamacare provision that allows young people to stay on their parents' health plan until they turn 26.

Two million young people now have health care coverage because of the provision, the study notes, but the biggest shift has been with youth demographics that are most at risk.

Among 18-25 year olds exhibiting signs of mental health or substance abuse problems, 5.3% more received mental health care than a comparable group of 26-35 year olds, researchers from Johns Hopkins and Harvard found in the study, published this month in the health care journal Health Affairs.

The cost of care has decreased, too: Uninsured doctor visits requiring patients to pay out of pocket were down 12.4%, while the number of covered visits rose 12.9%.

Three-quarters of all mental illnesses begin by age 24, according to the National Institute of Health. Before the passage of the Affordable Care Act, nearly 60% of all mental health or substance abuse care for young Americans was paid for out-of-pocket. Mental health care coverage is often prohibitively expensive, a factor that respondents routinely cite as a reason for not seeking care. 

“The dependent coverage provision could be especially important for young adults because mental health and substance use disorders peak in young adulthood, and insurance coverage has historically been low among young adults,” the study said.

Improving the country’s mental health care system has been a priority for President Obama, particularly with the rise in incidents of mass violence committed by young men with mental health problems. Shortly after the December 2012 massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, the White House ruled that health care providers must treat mental health problems as they do physical health and allocated $100 million in federal funding to help address mental health.

"The fact that less than half of children and adults with diagnosable mental health problems receive the treatment they need is unacceptable," Vice President Joe Biden said in a press release at the time.

The surge of young people who were allowed to stay on their parents’ plans did not change where people sought out mental health care and substance abuse treatment, a finding that surprised the researchers who expected the newly-insured to seek out more specialists instead of more accessible care at places like community clinics.

Researchers used data from the 2008-2012 National Survey of Drug Use and Health to compare younger and older Americans exhibiting signs of a mental health or substance abuse problem and their insurance habits. The younger group was found to be seeking out less uninsured medical care and using more covered services.