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Idaho’s mental health care is an economic development issue

Heidi KnittelIf business owners aren’t depressed about the state of mental health care in Idaho, they ought to be. As Idaho’s elected leaders slash mental health services, the cost of untreated mental illness on small businesses is staggering.

A few facts:

1) Depression is the second leading cause of disability worldwide.

2) The U.S. mentally ill population has a 48 – 73 percent lower employment rate, and misses between 35-96 work days annually, depending on severity of symptoms.

There’s an impact on our future workforce as well: The drop-out rate for U.S. high school students with emotional disturbance is greater than 50 percent.

It gets worse. Reduced or lost productivity in the U.S. costs a total of $78.5 billion, including lost earnings due to missed work ($59 billion), the value of time spent to care for family members with mental disorders ($3.1 billion) and estimated value of lost future earnings due to premature death, including suicide ($11.8 billion).

Fifty-four thousand adults in Idaho live with a serious mental illness. Do any of them work for you?

Symptoms of depression and mild mental illness include fatigue and lack of focus, which can lead to higher on-the-job accidents and workers’ compensation claims. A 2004 study estimated that the total economic benefit from treatment of depression is $7,100, a return of about $7 for each dollar invested in treatment.

There is hope. Businesses owners can’t close the funding gap, but they can help workers with mental health and related productivity losses, both at the state and local level. Larger employers have Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs) and offer health insurance that covers mental health services, such as counseling and medication management.

But what can the small business owner do? Look around your company. If one out of every 25 of your employees is suffering a mental illness, are you sure that employee has access to adequate care? Educate yourself and your staff about the mental health benefits on your health plan. Develop positive relationships with your employees that reduce workplace stress and increase trust. Consider the impact on your lower-wage employees who do not have access to health care.

In 2012, Governor C.L. “Butch” Otter turned down a lucrative offer to not only expand mental health treatment, but to boost the economy. Otter assembled a bipartisan workgroup to study the impact of Medicaid expansion. The results were astonishing: Over the next ten years the state could save $290 million in offsets to state and county governments, and allow for $6 million in state and county savings. Additionally, the workgroup estimated a generation of 16,000 new jobs, concomitant with closing the healthcare gap.

Small businesses are required to offer health insurance to their employees or pay a penalty. Many of Idaho’s 1,300 small business employees qualify for Medicaid expansion which, if adopted, would mean that employers could forego providing healthcare, while avoiding the financial penalty and protecting profits.

Ironically, Idahoans are paying for Medicaid expansion anyway with federal taxes. We are gifting our money to 35 participating states. Does it make good business sense to send Idaho tax dollars to help businesses and workers in other states?

Idaho has an election this November. Please do some research on where Idaho’s candidates stand on healthcare. Support the candidates who go to bat for healthy, working and prosperous Idaho workers and employers. Small businesses are relying on you.

Heidi Knittel is the program director of a small case management agency in Nampa and a member of the National Council for Behavioral Health. She’s running for Idaho State Senate in District 12.

About Heidi Knittel