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Study: People with serious mental illness had care disruptions during pandemic

Medicare beneficiaries with serious mental health disorders experienced disruptions in treatment in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a new study. Photo by geralt/Pixabay
Medicare beneficiaries with serious mental health disorders experienced disruptions in treatment in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a new study. Photo by geralt/Pixabay

Jan. 28 (UPI) -- People on Medicare with severe mental health disorders saw disruptions in treatment services during the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic in the United States, a study published Friday by JAMA Network Open found.

In March 2020, when the pandemic began in the United States, outpatient visits for mental health treatment services for those covered under the government-funded healthcare plan were down 20% compared to March 2019, the data showed.

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In addition, prescriptions for anti-psychotic and mood stabilizer medications filled for Medicare beneficiaries with mental health disorders declined by 20% in March 2020 compared to the same month a year earlier, the researchers said.

By the second half of 2020, both of these figures rebounded, but remained about 3% below 2019 levels, according to the researchers.

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These treatment lapses could have long-term health implications for this "extremely vulnerable population," study co-author Dr. Alisa B. Busch told UPI in an email.

"These are individuals with severe mental illness, most of them are poor and most are disabled," said Busch, an associate professor of psychiatry and healthcare policy at Harvard Medical School in Boston.

The pandemic has disrupted healthcare services worldwide, particularly for those with non-life-threatening illnesses, with hospitals overwhelmed by COVID-19 patients, according to the World Health Organization.

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About 14 million adults in the United States have been diagnosed with serious mental health disorders such as depression, bipolar disorder and schizophrenia, the National Institute of Mental Health estimates.

More than 65 million people nationally receive healthcare coverage under Medicare, which provides benefits to those age 65 years and older and those with disabilities, according to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.

Busch and her colleagues analyzed treatment usage trends for nearly 690,000 Medicare beneficiaries who received care for serious mental health disorders in 2019.

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With the declines in in-person care during the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, nearly 60% of treatment services were conducted via telemedicine, or by phone or video-calls, the researchers said.

However, Medicare beneficiaries unable to afford the technology needed to use telemedicine services were more likely to experience care disruptions, according to the researchers.

"[Care] disruptions occurred despite the robust uptake of telemedicine, [and] pretty quickly, as the pandemic started," Busch said.

"Without the rapid adoption of telemedicine, these disruptions would have been even more severe," she said.

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