Our elected officials, including the Public Service Commission, state legislators, the Gianforte administration, and our congressional delegation must do more to increase healthcare and mental health treatment access in Montana. While some steps have been taken, we have so much farther to go, especially to address the mental health issues Montanans are experiencing as the state emerges from the COVID pandemic.
From Wibaux to Saltese, to the farthest points north and south of I-90, rural Montanans need better access to better health care, including mental health treatment. There are 60 million Americans with mental health conditions, and nearly half of them go without any treatment despite mental health parity laws. Narrow insurance networks make it very difficult for patients to find a mental health provider that is in-network, forcing them to choose between seeking treatment and paying costs they cannot afford.
The first thing we can do is pass policies that mandate telehealth and mental health coverage by Medicaid, Medicare, and private insurers. Telehealth is often less expensive than in-person medical care, it eliminates travel costs for patients, and is a safer option for those with mobility impairments or who live in areas with rough winter roads. For many Americans, there are far fewer options for mental health providers than other medical providers. The closure of rural hospitals and the major shortage of mental health providers in rural areas makes telehealth and mental coverage imperative for Montanans.
The second thing we can do to increase health and mental health care access is to expand reliable internet services via broadband. The state recently released an interactive map showing current broadband access levels across Montana. Nearly 25% of the populated area in the state is underserved, mostly in rural areas. Living in a rural community shouldn’t mean your healthcare options are limited. In a recent poll, 82% of Montanans surveyed said that improving broadband to increase telehealth medicine was important.
COVID made a lot of things clear, including that telehealth is an effective and viable option for those in need of health care and mental health treatment access. During the pandemic, across the U.S., there was a 63% increase in telehealth care. If it worked then, it will continue to work now, but we need better systems in place to ensure Montanans can easily and affordably access telehealth and mental health services.
Kevin Hamm is the CEO of Treasure State Internet and Telegraph. He lives in Helena.
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