Rural Arizona Doesn’t Need Surprises on Mental Health Care Access

By Timothy Alan

Each year, I plunge into the wilderness for weeks at a time. The experience is a salve for my mental outlook. “Getting away from it all” is an effective wellness strategy. But it’s important to remember, serious issues like depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress, and substance abuse disorders do not resolve themselves with a temporary escape.

Treatment is essential. Unfortunately, in rural Arizona, mental health services can be incredibly hard to come by—and sadly, help could soon become even more difficult to access.

That’s because new legislation in Congress could worsen our state’s already severe shortage of mental health professionals. Elected leaders in Washington are moving rapidly on a plan to add price controls to the health care market. The proposal was crafted to relieve families of the risk of large, surprise medical bills for out-of-network health care services, but legislators’ good intentions cannot erase the detrimental consequences they would engender by enacting this law.

Price controls on any market are a recipe for shortages. When applied to food, the result was the bread lines of the former Soviet Union. When used on medicines, price controls contributed to the violent upheavals in Venezuela. If we add price controls to America’s health care system, including many behavioral health services, similar outcomes will follow.

This is unacceptable. Already more than 2.8 million Arizonans live in areas with too few mental health professionals. Our state is meeting less than 12 percent of the existing need for behavioral health services and would require nearly 200 more practitioners to catch up.[1] We won’t attract them if we have price controls.

I deliver wilderness-based therapeutic care for troubled teens and youth, and I can tell you, most of my clients with mental health challenges struggle to get help. A lack of psychiatrists and other providers is a problem we share with small towns, frontier regions, and remote communities across the nation, and it is putting our children in jeopardy. In fact, the suicide rate for young people in rural areas is almost twice as high as in urban regions.[2]

Without sufficient mental health experts, rural hospitals and clinics cannot provide life-saving emergency and inpatient psychiatric care for patients in imminent danger. And because the prognosis for mental illness improves with early treatment, our inability to direct behavioral health services to children, teens, and young adults condemns too many residents to more severe illness than they’d likely have suffered with more timely intervention.

Although my focus is on mental health, the effects of federal price control legislation would extend much farther into the health care system. Rural patients would be less able to access air ambulances to speed them to urgently needed care. The number of specialists, from heart doctors to trauma surgeons, would plummet from already low numbers. Patients would have to travel great distances for care, and non-critical cases would be shunted aside until a patient’s situation reaches crisis levels.

These outcomes are as predictable as they are life-threatening. Price controls never turn out any differently. It’s unclear how our elected leaders stumbled so far off course in their efforts to address health care affordability, but they need to return to their senses and protect—not endanger—Arizonans’ access to care.

Timothy Alan is a behavioral health specialist with ANASAZI.

[1] https://www.kff.org/other/state-indicator/mental-health-care-health-professional-shortage-areas-hpsas/?currentTimeframe=0&selectedRows=%7B%22states%22:%7B%22arizona%22:%7B%7D%7D%7D&sortModel=%7B%22colId%22:%22Location%22,%22sort%22:%22asc%22%7D

[2] https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/to-your-health/wp/2015/03/09/the-suicide-rate-for-young-people-is-much-higher-in-rural-areas/