Why experts say we may need a 'Mars shot' to address mental illness in the U.S.

Patients in a hospital waiting room
Access problems still persist in mental healthcare, experts say. (Getty/SuwanPhoto)

The healthcare industry is shooting for the moon on cancer research and care, but experts say it will need to aim even higher on mental health.

The Cancer Moonshot initiative, spearheaded by former Vice President Joe Biden, is a high-profile nationwide prevention and research effort. Mary Giliberti, CEO of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, said that same level of drive needs to be extended to mental and behavioral healthcare.

"Care is care, and people with serious mental illness aren't getting much of it, physical or mental," Giliberti said. "In mental illness, we need a 'Mars shot,' and to go where we haven't gone before."

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Giliberti was one of several speakers at an event on the state of mental healthcare in America hosted Wednesday morning by The Washington Post.

RELATED: With suicides on the rise, clinicians need more training to spot the warning signs

Lack of access and poor insurance coverage options are the two central challenges in mental healthcare, the experts at the event said. Joshua A. Gordon, M.D., director of the National Institute of Mental Health, said that expanding the reach of telehealth is one of the most promising solutions.

However, lack of coverage and reimbursement is keeping some providers from truly embracing what the technology can do for mental health patients, Gordon said.

"We need to get providers to where patients are," Gordon said. "And we can do that with modern technology."

RELATED: Kaiser plans to invest in telemedicine for mental health as part of an agreement with state regulators

Another issue is that traditional providers are not necessarily equipped to handle complicated mental health needs, though behavioral health concerns often play a role in care management for complex patients, Gordon said.

To better reach these patients and address their needs, traditional sites of care will need to step up to the plate, which extends to more integrated care delivery models that include mental healthcare, he said.

Giliberti's group, in conjunction with Georgetown University, released on Tuesday a report examining the state of mental health coverage in individual markets prior to the implementation of the Affordable Care Act. The goal was to show what coverage rollbacks—such as eliminating the essential health benefits—could do to patients with mental illnesses.

Insurers frequently denied coverage to patients with mental health concerns as a pre-existing condition, according to the report, and patients with a history of mental illness could see their premiums rise by as much as 50%.

Giliberti said the healthcare industry can't afford to go back to that "rampant discrimination."

"This is the greatest health disparity that no one is really talking about," she said.

RELATED: Barriers to healthcare access persist for mentally ill patients

Sens. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, and Thom Tillis, R-N.C., also spoke at the event, agreeing that Congress' best shot at addressing these issues is starting small. Tillis said that beginning with a legislative focus on a smaller population, such as veterans or the prison population, can produce programs that are scalable to larger groups.

"If we start with narrow populations, we can adapt to the remaining populations," he said. "We should look to produce an outcome versus hitting the ball out of the park."

Schatz said a prime target for incremental improvement is the opioid epidemic, which is a key focus for legislators at present.

"You have to go slow to go fast," he said.