The Costs and Consequences of Disparities in Behavioral Health Care


Cover of the reportEach year, people belonging to racial and ethnic minority groups experience worse behavioral health status and treatment outcomes, along with more difficulty accessing services, than their peers in other groups.

These disparities in behavioral health care—which addresses people’s mental and emotional well-being—lead to significant human and financial costs. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, “members of racial and ethnic minority groups in the U.S. are less likely to have access to mental health services, less likely to use community mental health services, more likely to use inpatient hospitalization and emergency rooms, and more likely to receive lower quality care.”

The cost to states is significant. Eliminating health disparities would have reduced direct medical care costs by $229 billion nationwide between 2003 and 2006, according to the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies.

State legislatures have adopted various policies to reduce barriers to behavioral health services and improve mental and emotional health across population groups. These approaches vary across states and can focus on developing the behavioral health workforce, as well as improving coverage, service availability, affordability and quality. To understand how legislators address behavioral health challenges and disparities in their states, NCSL conducted an analysis of all legislation related to behavioral health disparities that was introduced in 2017.

This brief:

  • Summarizes behavioral health issues and challenges.
  • Highlights state actions from the 2017 legislative sessions.
  • Identifies common legislative approaches, as well as emerging strategies, to improve access to behavioral health providers and services.

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