Around the world, healthcare providers are reporting a sharp rise in anxiety, stress, and depression. Mental health issues like these are leading causes of short and long-term disability claims. Are you ready to respond? In this article, we’ll examine the growing mental health crisis, homing in on the impact it may have on disability claim management. We’ll also share strategies for how leaders in this space can brace for impact.
Mental Health: the Other Pandemic
Numerous studies show a sharp rise in anxiety, stress, depression, and related mental health disorders. For example, from January to September of 2020, Mental Health America reported a 93% increase over 2019 in the number of people who completed an online anxiety screen. Screens for depression also rose by 62%. Of those screened, 80% scored with symptoms of moderate to severe depression or anxiety.
According to IBI, depression and anxiety already lead to 167,000 new short-term disability claims every year in the U.S. Furthermore, per IBI, 8% of short-term disability claims for anxiety and depression eventually transition to long-term claims. Of these, 13% last for more than two years. Clearly, a rise in disability claims due to mental health can significantly impact the claim organization’s ability and approach to managing these claims.
When asked to identify the source of their moderate-to-severe anxiety or depression, 70% cited loneliness or isolation. Only 27% cited the coronavirus. (2021 COVID-19 and Mental Health: A Growing Crisis, MHA)
It remains to be seen whether the rise in mental health concerns will level off as the effects of the pandemic wane. Much of an individual’s recovery may depend on how quickly they can rebuild their social support systems. Given the damage done by COVID-19, this may take time. Carriers are already reporting a rise in short-term disability claims, and we believe our industry would be well served to prepare for some impact in long-term disability claims as well.
Underlying Factors Due to COVID
Most carriers are organized and staffed with experienced claims professionals who are well-versed in working with people suffering from mental health issues. They often require enhanced communication skills, access to specialized medical professionals, and unique return to work strategies. If done well, working with these customers takes time. However, the increase in people suffering from mental illness, whether filing a disability claim or not, may disrupt our normal approaches, and there a few things carriers should be thinking about.
First, due to the pandemic, some individuals have lost their health coverage but even those who do have health insurance often have to search to find a provider who accepts their insurance.
The demand for mental health services and the shortage of psychiatrists also make it difficult to seek appropriate treatment. Before the pandemic, the wait time for an appointment was often measured in weeks. Now, as more people seek help for mental health issues, patients can be waiting months to see the appropriate treating provider. Often when an appointment is secured, the visits are done through video conferencing or telehealth. Although these can be very effective, they may not replicate the success of in-person visits.
Delays getting treatment or inappropriate treatment may contribute to other challenges. Recovery may be compromised and returning to work may be extended. The longer a person remains out of work, the more difficult it may become for them to return to the workplace. Inappropriate, but available care may include prescription drugs as the first treatment option without the benefit of counseling and other non-drug treatment modalities.
Claims Operations Brace for Impact
As you assess your claims department and its ability to handle the increase of new short-and long-term disability mental health claims, your team of claims professionals is the first to look.
Does your staff have the capacity and the specialized tools to appropriately work with your claimant customers? Disability claims for mental health reasons are some of the most challenging. Stress, anxiety, and depression affect an individual’s ability to process information. Navigating the claim process is complicated and these calls take longer, and customers may require more interactions with the analyst than when claims are related to an injury or physical illness. RGA’s Guide for Claims Case Managers is a helpful resource for you and your team to use to navigate conversations with clients with mental health-related claims.
Where possible, reduce or eliminate the administrative tasks, cancel the less important meetings, find the waste in your processes so your analysts can focus on their customers. If you can, look to outside talent and organizations for short or long-term claim management support. Success in the short term may be to ask everyone to work longer hours, success in the long term will be to invest in the capacity and tools.
Assuming your people will just handle the increased caseload is often a mistake. Like your customers, your analysts are no doubt suffering some degree of pandemic fatigue as well. Many of them have been directly impacted by COVID-19. If they’re under stress, their ability to help others suffering from more debilitating stress and anxiety diminishes. In addition, burnout and turnover simply exacerbate the situation. Although it may be counterintuitive, you can help by ensuring they aren’t being asked to handle more than they can manage, keep caseloads reasonable. Check-in often and give permission to catch their breath and re-group between calls, give them a venue to vent, problem-solve, and express their needs and concerns. Ultimately, supporting and prioritizing your team members' mental health and well-being will help in their efforts to support those struggling.
We’re Here for You
SALT has been helping carriers improve claims processing by providing services and resources since 2002. To learn more about we can help, reach out here. Together, we can tackle your toughest claims-related challenges.