Screening for substance abuse and mental health in primary care can improve detection. One way to advance screening is for health plans to require it.
We developed national estimates of the prevalence and type of mental and substance-use condition screening health plans require of primary care practitioners.
In 1999 (N = 434, response rate = 92%) and 2003 (N = 368, response rate = 83%), we conducted a nationally representative health plan survey regarding alcohol, drug, and mental health services, including screening requirements.
Health plans reported on screening requirements of their top three private insurance products. Products were categorized by type (HMO, POS, or PPO), behavioral health contracting arrangements, tax status, market area population, and region.
We asked whether primary care practitioners are required to use a general health screening questionnaire (including mental health, alcohol, or drugs items) and/or a screening questionnaire focused on mental health, alcohol, or drug problems.
By 2003, 34% of products had any behavioral health screening requirements. Although there was no increase from 1999 to 2003 in requirements for any kind of behavioral health screening, requirements for using a standard screening instrument declined for mental health but increased for alcohol and drug screening. PPOs showed the largest increase in prevalence of behavioral health screening requirements. Products contracting with managed behavioral health organizations were more likely to require screening.
Most products do not require behavioral health screening in primary care. More screening could help to improve identification of behavioral health conditions, a first step towards effective treatment.