Objectives. In disparities models, researchers adjust for differences in “clinical need,” including indicators of comorbidities. We reconsider this practice, assessing (1) if and how having a comorbidity changes the likelihood of recognition and treatment of mental illness; and (2) differences in mental health care disparities estimates with and without adjustment for comorbidities.
Data. Longitudinal data from 2000 to 2007 Medical Expenditure Panel Survey (n=11,083) split into pre and postperiods for white, Latino, and black adults with probable need for mental health care.
Study Design. First, we tested a crowd-out effect (comorbidities decrease initiation of mental health care after a primary care provider [PCP] visit) using logistic regression models and an exposure effect (comorbidities cause more PCP visits, increasing initiation of mental health care) using instrumental variable methods. Second, we assessed the impact of adjustment for comorbidities on disparity estimates.
Principal Findings. We found no evidence of a crowd-out effect but strong evidence for an exposure effect. Number of postperiod visits positively predicted initiation of mental health care. Adjusting for racial/ethnic differences in comorbidities increased black–white disparities and decreased Latino–white disparities.
Conclusions. Positive exposure findings suggest that intensive follow-up programs shown to reduce disparities in chronic-care management may have additional indirect effects on reducing mental health care disparities.