Minnesota employers are using a $200,000 award to expand a coalition that is pushing for better access to mental health care in the state.

The money goes to the Minnesota Health Action Group, a Bloomington-based employer group that launched a coalition earlier this year to promote better mental health benefits and shift workplace attitudes after noting the sizable effect of depression on worker productivity, medication use and well-being.

The award comes from the Patient-Centered Outcomes Research Institute, a nonprofit group authorized by Congress in 2010 to fund research that helps patients and health care providers make health care decisions based on solid evidence.

"Mental health care delivery and outcomes significantly lag physical health," the group said in a description of its Mental Health Guiding Coalition, the 18-month project being funded by the award. "The fragmented system often fails patients. Sadly, the [Minnesota] statewide rate of depression remission at six months stands at 8%, and it has not improved in three years."

"The long-term objective is to increase the statewide rate of depression remission at six months from 8% to 50%," the group said.

The Minnesota Health Action Group is composed of public- and private-sector employers that provide health plans for workers. The Mental Health Guiding Coalition includes some of those employers as well as health plans and health care providers, plus local research and advocacy groups.

The coalition is a "broad multi-stakeholder group that's trying to work together to advance mental health care and outcomes in Minnesota," said Deb Krause, vice president of the Minnesota Health Action Group. "We wanted to do more, and doing more required additional funding."

With the money, the coalition plans to hold three community meetings across the state to get information on mental health needs and priorities. The feedback will inform a research project funded by the award to identify how to bridge gaps in mental health care.

The coalition also plans to continue small meetings of advocacy teams that spotlight key issues. One such meeting earlier this year provided employers with contract language they could use when bidding on health plan contracts, to make sure that insurance companies are providing access to care. Another meeting explained how a new state law gives regulators more authority to hold insurance companies accountable for providing access to mental health care.

Like many other large employers, the city of St. Paul usually finds that mental health care is one of the top four categories of health care use among workers, said Nance Lee Mosquera, benefits manager for the city and chair of the coalition.

Mosquera said she has found the coalition's work provided useful background for a new program that helps workers identify their "stress personalities" and plug into services, as needed. She has also used checklists developed by the coalition to guide conversations with the city's health insurance company about understanding and improving services.

"We looked at our utilization about a year ago, and stress was impacting 67% of our employees — that's huge," Mosquera said. "I clearly saw that this was something we could get behind as an organization."

Christopher Snowbeck • 612-673-4744 Twitter: @chrissnowbeck