The Path Forward for Severe Mental Illness and Super-Utilization 

By Elizabeth Hancq

Individuals with severe mental illness are often caught in the revolving door of super-utilization, cycling through inpatient hospitals, emergency departments, jail or homeless shelters.  

Super-utilization refers to the phenomenon where a relatively small number of people make relatively frequent use of high-cost services at enormous public expense. Anecdotes of the role of severe mental illness in super-utilization can be found in countless local media stories, such as Super Dave in Tennessee who was arrested more than 250 times in his lifetime, or Jane in New Jersey who generated $4.4 million dollars in hospital charges in a five-year period.  

However, the enumerated costs of the role of severe mental illness in super-utilization are largely unknown. “Accounting for barely 3% of the adult population, individuals with diagnoses of schizophrenia and severe bipolar disorder are known to be overrepresented in the systems most affected by the failure of the US mental health system, principally when untreated. Yet despite the human and economic toll of this pattern, the role of SMI in high utilization is largely uncharted,” the Office of Research and Public Affairs wrote in the 2017 report on the topic, A Crisis in Search of Data.  

A ground-breaking new report released last week by Milliman is an important step toward understanding the role of serious mental illness in high utilization of health and mental health care services. The report’s findings provide cost estimates to the total healthcare services received and compares spending patterns between high-cost groups, with a focus on mental health and substance use disorders. 

The study authors utilized 2017 healthcare claims data from 21 million individuals with commercial insurance. They compared levels of spending for physical and mental health care by spending group, high- cost (top 10%) and non-high-cost (remaining 90%), across the prevalence of mental health and substance use disorders among this population.  

The researchers found that 57% of the individuals in the high-cost group had a mental health or substance use disorder, accounting for less than 6% of the total population but 44% of the total healthcare costs. Although the total healthcare costs for the individuals in this group averaged $45,782 per year, half of these individuals had less than $95 of spending for mental health or substance use disorder treatment in a one-year period.   

Accounting for fewer than 1% of the 21 million individuals in the study sample, individuals with severe mental illness accounted for 3.3% of the total healthcare costs with the highest percentage of mental health service costs for any of the groups studied. Individuals with severe mental illness “have 6.3 times higher annual total healthcare costs and 4.2 times higher medical/surgical costs,” according to the report.  

The findings in the report have important implications for policy makers and insurers to consider regarding the health coverage and spending associated with high-cost individuals. The report further validates the role of severe mental illness in super-utilization and points to how the current fragmented healthcare system has contributed to a lack of equitable, accessible treatment for individuals with severe mental illness. In addition, the findings underscore the importance of integrated mental health and substance use disorder treatment to prevent the high impact of these disorders on healthcare spending and reduce the personal and societal consequences of lack of treatment for individuals in need.  

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