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Online ISSN: 1099-176X    Print ISSN: 1091-4358
The Journal of Mental Health Policy and Economics
Volume 26, Issue 1, 2023. Pages: 19-32
Published Online: 1 March 2023

Copyright © 2023 ICMPE.


Changes in Racial and Ethnic Disparities in Use of Mental Health Services under the Affordable Care Act: Evidence from California

Lyoung Hee Kim,1*, Dominic Hodgkin2, Mary Jo Larson2, Michael Doonan2

1Ph.D., Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education (ORISE), Oak Ridge, TN, USA
2Ph.D., Brandeis University, Heller School for Social Policy and Management, Waltham, MA, USA


* Correspondence to: Lyoung Hee Kim, PhD, MPA, MA, Oak Ridge Institute for Science and, Education (ORISE), Oak Ridge, TN, 37831, USA.
Tel.: +1-781-530-7870
E-mail: lhkim@brandeis.edu

Source of Funding: None declared.



Background: The Affordable Care Act (ACA) aimed to expand mental health service use in the US, by expanding access to health insurance. However, the gap in mental health utilization by race and ethnicity is pronounced: members of racial and ethnic minoritized groups remain less likely to use mental health services than non-Hispanic White individuals even after the ACA.

Aims of the Study: This study assessed the effect of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) on mental health services use in one large state (California), and whether that effect differed among racial and ethnic groups. Also, it tested for change in racial and ethnic disparities after the implementation of the ACA, using four measures of mental health care.

Methods: Using pooled California Health Interview Survey (CHIS) data from 2011-2018, logistic regression and Generalized Linear Models (GLM) were estimated. Disparities were defined using the Institute of Medicine (IOM) definition. Primary outcomes were any mental health care in primary settings; in specialty settings, any prescription medication for mental health problems, and number of annual visits to mental health services.

Results: Findings suggested that the change in Hispanic-non-Hispanic White disparities in prescription medication use under the ACA was statistically significant, narrowing the gap by 7.23 percentage points (p<.05). However, the disparity in other measures was not significantly reduced.

Discussion: These findings suggest that the magnitude of the increase in primary and specialty mental health services among racial and ethnic minorities was not large enough to significantly reduce racial and ethnic disparities. One possible explanation is that non-financial factors played a role, such as language barriers, attitudinal barriers from home culture norms, and systemic barriers due to mental health professional shortages and a limited number of mental health care providers of color.

Implications for Health Care Provision and Use: Integrated approaches that coordinate specialty and primary care mental health services may be needed to promote mental healthcare access for members of racial and ethnic minoritized groups.

Implications for Health Policies: Federal and state policies aiming to improve mental health services use have historically given more weight to financial determinants, but this has not been enough to significantly reduce racial/ethnic disparities. Thus, policies should pay more attention to non-financial determinants.

Implications for Further Research: Assessing underlying mechanisms of non-financial factors that moderate the effectiveness of the ACA is a worthwhile goal for future research. Future studies should examine the extent to which non-financial factors intervene in the relationship between the implementation of the ACA and mental health services use.

Received 18 October 2022; accepted 19 February 2023

Copyright 2023 ICMPE