December 5, 2017
By Kelly Davis, Manager of Peer Advocacy, Supports, and Services at Mental Health America
Research shows that peer support is effective in many respects. From reducing depression and substance use to increasing hope and engagement to improving relationships and connectedness, peer support has an impact unlike anything else in the mental health system. In addition to the life-changing impact of peer support, peer support is gaining attention in the public and private sectors for another reason: it saves money.
In addition to the life-changing impact of peer support, peer support is gaining attention in the public and private sectors for another reason: it saves money.
Peer support specialists’ connection with individuals and support around the things they find most important often keeps people out of the most restrictive and expensive levels of mental health services. This translates to large savings for payers, especially among individuals who have been hospitalized multiple times. But instead of focusing on the cost-savings from the most intensive services and the value peers bring to the table, peer support is often viewed as less valuable, low-wage labor, especially compared with other services.
This is partially due to attitudes about individuals with psychiatric disorders. The idea that peer support exists just to give people something to do as volunteers or to keep them busy is rooted in assumptions about individuals’ ability or desire to work. While peer support and volunteer work can be a great way for individuals to spend their time when transitioning back to the workforce, many peer support specialists do want to work full-time. While some regions of the country and settings are seeing improving wages for peers, many peers are still struggling not because they cannot work but because they are either forced out of the workforce by low wages or are trapped in disability when they are not paid enough to support themselves.
Low wages can also be traced to a lack of knowledge about the financial benefits of utilizing peer support. By investing in the use of peer services up front, payers save many times more in reduced hospitalizations and use of intensive services. The information available through Managed Care Organizations shows just how dramatic these savings can be. For example, a peer coaching program operated by Optum in New York saw a 47.1% decrease in overall behavioral health costs per person.
Despite the growing body of evidence on its outcomes and cost-effectiveness, peer support continues to be undervalued by payers. By undervaluing and underpaying peer support specialists, many will be trapped in a cycle of poverty or leave the field altogether. For peer support to continue its expansion and to attract and keep peer supporters in the workforce, we must advocate for better wages so that those who wish to can stay in the field and continue to change lives and communities.
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