VA’s Mental Health Care As Good or Better than Private Sector Study Finds

WASHINGTON — Veterans with mental illness and substance abuse cost nearly three times as much to treat as the average veteran. According to a VA-commissioned study by the RAND Corp. looking at data from one year of care (2007), such veterans represented 15% of patients using VA healthcare services, but accounted for 32.9% of costs.

The study, conducted between 2006 and 2010, was commissioned to evaluate VA’s progress toward the goals of its Mental Health Strategic Plan. Those goals include:

*raising the importance of mental health,

*eliminating disparities in services,

*increasing mental health screening, assessments and referrals to care, and

* providing high-quality, evidence-based care.

According to RAND, the study represents the most comprehensive evaluation of a mental healthcare system ever undertaken. The evaluation focused on quality of care delivered to veterans with one or more of five mental-health or substance-abuse diagnoses: schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, PTSD, major depressive disorder (MDD) and substance-use disorder.

High Cost of Treatment

The researchers looked at data from three million veterans, eventually identifying 836,699 with at least one of those diagnoses. While those veterans represented 15% of the patient population in 2007, they cost 2.7 times that of the average veteran to treat — $12,337 per patient, or $12 billion total.

However, most of the healthcare received by these veterans was for non-mental health conditions. According to the researchers, this reflects the high degree to which veterans with mental health and substance use conditions suffer from physical health problems.

For example, in patients diagnosed only with schizophrenia, a little more than half the cost of treatment was attributable to non-mental health diagnoses. In those patients suffering from substance use disorder only, 80% of the cost of treatment was for non-mental health problems

The most common of these diagnoses were essential hypertension, which was found in 32% of the veterans studied and diabetes mellitus, which was found in 19%.

The most-expensive patients to treat were those with schizophrenia, who cost on average $22,694 per patient per year in FY 2008. The second highest were those patients with co-occurring substance-use disorder, who cost $20,903.

According to RAND, the total amount spent on mental-health care will only have increased since the data used in the study was compiled, because the number of veterans seeking mental-health care has nearly doubled in the last eight years.

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