New mental health access and waiting times standards; what’s the delay?

It’s been 5 years since the government’s ambitious pledge to bring mental health services up to the standards of those for physical ailments was announced. Yet, it seems that implementing such a system is proving to be difficult.

The National Audit Office has scrutinised the Department of Health’s (DH) strategy for bringing a “parity of esteem” to ensure patients who access mental health therapies do not have to wait longer in comparison to patients who access general health therapies. New waiting times were meant to be introduced towards the beginning of April this year.

The majority of the cost of implementation for a new access and waiting time standards will be met from the clinical commissioning groups existing budgets. In addition, NHS England has made available £120m of additional funding over the two year period, 2014-2016.

However, in light of the report, it has become apparent that the DH does not yet comprehend how much the policy will cost. It was found that in order to improve access, early intervention in psychosis and liaison psychiatry services would need to be budgeted for at least £160m a year more than the estimated £663m that CCG’s spent on these services in 2014-15.

These findings have emerged as a result of an increased number of people seeking mental health treatment from the NHS.

Meg Hillier, the chair of the public accounts committee said that “The government has committed to putting mental and physical health on an equal footing. The NAO reports that the cost of improving access is not yet clear, but the NHS is still expected to meet most of the costs from existing budgets. This risks piling pressure on to NHS commissioners and providers who are already under significant financial strain,”

Labours mental health spokesperson Luciana Berger MP said that “The new standards were meant to come into effect at the beginning of this month, but there are not enough staff on the frontline to deliver what is required and there isn’t the right information available to assess if the government is meeting its target or not.”

A DH spokesperson said it aimed to publish a five year plan for mental health data by the end of 2016, with additional funding by 2020. “We have made big improvements in mental health data, publishing more statistics than ever before and launching the first national survey of children and young people’s mental health since 2004.”

In light of the growing number of patients seeking mental health treatment for the NHS, it is vital that the demand is met through careful implementation of access and waiting time standards.

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