Defense Health Care: DOD Expanded Telehealth for Mental Health Care during the COVID-19 Pandemic

What the GAO found

The Department of Defense (DOD) Military Health System provides a full range of health care, including mental health care for conditions such as anxiety and depression for members of the military (Army, Navy, Air Force and Corps). Marines). The DOD significantly increased its use of telehealth to provide mental health care to service members during the COVID-19 pandemic. DOD data shows that before the pandemic, from January 2019 to February 2020, telehealth visits represented about 15 percent of all outpatient mental health care visits. The number of such visits increased by 275% from February 2020 to its peak in April 2020 (from 31,504 visits in February 2020 to 118,246 visits in April 2020). Then utilization of outpatient mental health care through telehealth decreased. However, it remained above pre-pandemic levels and accounted for 33 percent of all outpatient mental health care visits provided in April 2021.

DOD officials told us that telehealth was a valuable tool in providing mental health care during the COVID-19 pandemic and noted that telehealth facilitated continuity of care. The DOD published guidance that allowed the use of programs such as Apple FaceTime and Microsoft Skype for DOD providers and service members to participate in telehealth visits. DOD officials noted that telehealth may not be the best option for some high-risk patients, but said it is a valuable tool that will likely continue to be used for some mental health care services after the pandemic recedes.

DOD shared information to help address the potential mental health impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic with its mental health providers and service members. This included information on delivering care through telehealth and tip sheets for providers, resources for service members on topics such as reducing stress, promoting wellness, and coping with isolation, and materials from DOD research entities. For example, a military official told the GAO that the military created and disseminated newsletters to mental health providers, addressing mental health-related topics such as how providers can help their patients mitigate violence. home during the pandemic.

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Why GAO did this study

The COVID-19 pandemic presented stressors for both military service members and military mental health providers; for some service members, it meant deployment to the front lines of the pandemic battle.

The William M. (Mac) Thornberry National Defense Authorization Act for FY 2021 includes a provision for GAO to review mental health care for service members during the COVID-19 pandemic. This report describes 1) what the DOD did to provide mental health care during the COVID-19 pandemic, and 2) the information DOD shared with mental health providers and service members to help them deal with potential impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on mental health.

GAO reviewed DOD policies on mental health screening and provision of telehealth, reviewed reports on mental health care during the COVID-19 pandemic, analyzed Defense Health Agency data on telehealth utilization for mental health care services between January 2019 and April 2021 (the most recent data available at the time of our review) and interviewed Department of Defense officials from the Defense Health Agency, the military services, and the National Guard. .

For more information, contact Alyssa M. Hundrup at (202) 512-7114 or [email protected].

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