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The number of patients receiving mental health care is expected to soar under provisions of the Affordable Care Act that will take effect next week, The Wall Street Journal reports. As many as 62 million additional Americans may qualify for mental health coverage.

Beginning October 1, health plans sold on the new exchanges must provide at least some mental health coverage. Existing health plans must do the same when they come up for renewal, the article notes. In addition, a 2008 federal “parity” law prevents health insurance plans from placing more restrictions on mental health benefits than on medical benefits.

Mental health care is limited in many areas of the country. An estimated 90 million Americans live in areas with fewer than one psychiatrist per 30,000 residents.

To make more efficient use of a limited number of mental health professionals, primary care practices are trying to integrate psychiatric care. Large health systems, including Kaiser Permanente and the Veterans Health Administration, are having primary care providers treat mental health issues with the oversight of psychiatrists.

The integration is also being spurred by a growing acknowledgement that medical and mental health problems are often intertwined. For instance, patients with heart disease and diabetes are twice as likely as the general population to suffer from anxiety and depression. In turn, these mental health problems make it more difficult to lose weight and make other healthful changes.

In a practice that integrates medical and mental health care, doctors can introduce patients to a counselor on site. “It’s so important to capture that moment,” said internist Thomas Goforth, Medical Director of the Family Health Center of Harlem, an integrated-care center in New York City. “If a patient gets comfortable with a counselor before ever leaving the building, he’s much more likely to return.”


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