Baker’s behavioral health commitment merits support (Editorial)

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Gov. Charlie Baker’s plan to create better access to behavioral health care is not being presented as his legacy, but if it bears fruit, as it should, his final year in office will have long-lasting positive impact.

The governor’s proposal would require providers and insurers to increase spending on primary and behavioral health by 30% by 2025. That would put $1.4 billion into the system and address the critical problem of access to such care, which health experts call a crisis in Massachusetts.

Four months remain on the legislative schedule in this, the governor’s final year in office. But that should be time enough, because this is not the first time Baker has broached it.

A similar 2019 proposal was sidetracked by the COVID-19 pandemic, which did have the effect of expanding telehealth services and other improvements. But, the pandemic also dramatically highlighted the need for better behavioral health services.

Whatever improvements came through necessity by the onset of the pandemic, the need for these services – which for too long have been given lower priority than other health services – is even greater than ever.

Baker’s plan is receiving criticism from PhRMA, which represents drug companies in Massachusetts. While praising parts of the package, it warned of “dangerous price controls” and said Baker was targeting an industry that supports more than 90,000 jobs in the state and helps Massachusetts remain an innovation leader.

It’s a predictable private industry response to proposed government controls. It contains some useful facts. But it does not address the fundamental question: given the current circumstances, is this legislation necessary?

It is. Baker correctly said the COVID-19 pandemic has left vast numbers of citizens of all ages in need of help for isolation, depression and despair. Current conditions make it too complicated or difficult to access services to help them – leading to even more despair.

Increased spending on behavioral care figures to have a ripple effect throughout the healthcare industry, possibly leading to cuts in other areas. Behavioral health care is a post-pandemic priority, though, and needs to be treated as such.

This proposal requires urgent legislative attention because it’s an urgent problem. Left unchecked, it will leave more people heading to emergency rooms because they could not access the services they deserve when they needed them.

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