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J Behav Health Serv Res. 2009 Oct;36(4):420-35. doi: 10.1007/s11414-008-9161-z. Epub 2008 Dec 23.

Accessing specialty behavioral health treatment in private health plans.

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  • 1Heller School for Social Policy and Management, Brandeis University, Waltham, MA 02454-9110, USA.


Connecting people to mental health and substance abuse services is critical, given the extent of unmet need. The way health plans structure access to care can play a role. This study examined treatment entry procedures for specialty behavioral health care in private health plans and their relationship with behavioral health contracting arrangements, focusing primarily on initial entry into outpatient treatment. The data source was a nationally representative health plan survey on behavioral health services in 2003 (N = 368 plans with 767 managed care products; 83% response rate). Most health plan products initially authorized six or more outpatient visits if authorization was required, did not routinely conduct telephonic clinical assessment, had standards for timely access, and monitored wait time. Products with carve-outs differed on several treatment entry dimensions. Findings suggest that health plans focus on timely access and typically do not heavily manage initial entry into outpatient treatment.

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