New report: significant equity gaps exist in Medi-Cal mental health services


Eli Kirshbaum


Today the California Pan-Ethnic Health Network released a new report, “Medi-Cal Managed Care Mental Health Services: An Unfulfilled Promise for Communities of Color,” highlighting the numerous barriers and challenges Black, Indigenous, people of color and non-English speaking people face in accessing Medi-Cal mental health services from their health plan.

The global pandemic has heightened the need for mental health services among the communities hit hardest by COVID-19. 2020 polling from the California Health Care Foundation found that over a quarter of Californians were reporting worsening mental health during the pandemic. One in three Black and Latino Californians know someone who has died as a result of COVID-19, and many in communities of color are worried about their family economic status as a result of the pandemic.

Despite the need, CPEHN’s research points to serious gaps in the accessibility of mental health services for Medi-Cal members. Since 2014, Medi-Cal has covered mental health services for mild to moderate levels of need through managed care health plans, in addition to specialty mental health services delivered through California’s counties. Unfortunately, significant racial disparities continue to exist in utilization of managed care plan mental health services. Data show Latinx and Asian and Pacific Islander Medi-Cal members access non-specialty mental health services at the lowest rates of all racial and ethnic groups in managed care.

CPEHN reviewed the consumer-facing webpages of managed care plans to test the ability of consumers to understand their mental health benefits and locate an in-network provider. Most of the websites reviewed were extremely difficult to navigate, not fully translated, and did not provide an easily searchable directory of mental health providers. CPEHN also interviewed primary care physicians to understand their ability to refer patients to mental health services and to assist consumers with accessing their benefits. The majority of physicians were not aware of the mental health benefits available to consumers through managed care plans and had to ability to refer or connect their patients to these services.

The Department of Health Care Services is currently in the process of procuring new commercial managed care plans and updating the contracts for all managed care plans. This is a critical opportunity to strengthen consumer access to mental health services by requiring health plans to proactively outreach to consumers about their mental health care options, providing navigation assistance to consumers who wish to find an in-network mental health provider, and, ultimately, utilizing various policy and financial levers to hold managed care plans accountable for ensuring adequate access.

This press release was provided by the California Pan-Ethnic Health Network.