Using Insurance To Pay For Counseling? What You Need To Know

As counselors, we are required to adhere to an ethical code which states: “Do No Harm.” But what happens when we do and it’s outside of our control?

I still remember the day my client came in my office, looked right into my eyes and said, “I’m really angry with you.” She proceeded to tell me how she had recently been denied life insurance due to a diagnosis I had given her – a diagnosis I was required to provide her insurance company for them to pay for services.

The myriad of emotions that resulted from that incident are what led me to decide not to directly bill insurance companies for mental health coverage.

If you are considering using health insurance to cover the cost of counseling or therapy services, you might think twice. Most people think that the cost of therapy is something they can’t manage without using insurance. Most people think of utilizing insurance as a benefit.

However, what they don’t realize is the potential cost of using insurance to pay for counseling.

Medical Necessity = On Your Record

Insurance companies only pay for services that are deemed “medically necessary.” In therapy, medical necessity is established by diagnosing a client. Furthermore, as clinicians, we have to demonstrate that a client’s mental health condition is affecting and interfering with their overall functioning on a daily basis in a clinically significant manner.

The problem is that many of life’s challenges, and the reasons why people seek counseling and therapy services, are not mental health disorders, nor are they diagnosable. In this case, your insurance company will not cover treatment. Insurance won’t pay for, “I was recently laid off and I don’t know what to do” or “I’m ready to retire and I feel anxious and lost” or “I’m grieving the loss of my parent.”

Many of the clients I work with don’t have a mental health disorder. They are simply looking to improve coping and communication skills, manage and resolve relationship conflicts, increase productivity in their lives or careers, or improve their ability to manage life’s daily stressors.

An ethical therapist will not simply diagnose you for the sake of insurance payment. Why? They would be committing fraud. Would you entrust the most intimate details of your personal or professional life with someone willing to commit fraud?

Diagnosis = Possible Long Term Consequences

More often than not, mental health diagnoses do not have a statute of limitations. So, the diagnosis follows you – and in some cases, permanently. Any documented mental health treatment filed through your insurance company will go on your permanent medical record. What this means is it can get flagged as a “pre-existing illness.”

You may be thinking, “So what?”

However, what most people don’t realize is that this can significantly impact your future ability to obtain services like health insurance. What if you’re an entrepreneur or business owner and need financing? Your medical record becomes part of the vetting process.

Or, like my client, what if you want to get life insurance to ensure your children are taken care of in the event of the unthinkable?

My client learned the answer the hard way.

Loss of Confidentiality = Loss of Control

Another major concern regarding using health insurance for counseling or therapy treatment is the possible loss of confidentiality. In addition to the insurance company requiring a diagnosis, they also gather information about your treatment. This includes notes from each session, treatment plans, goals for therapy, and perhaps the most alarming: documentation of mental health symptoms deemed clinically significant and interfering with overall functioning.

The foundation of therapeutic effectiveness is the client’s ability to feel safe and secure. With the details of your treatment available for anyone to access, including potential employers, how comfortable would you feel?

In today’s world, it has become a regular occurrence to receive alerts from our creditors and the like about data breaches. Target, Chase, Yahoo, Equifax, Marriott and the list goes on. My former university contacted me not long ago and informed me that my personal and private information had been compromised. These types of notifications have become commonplace.

While some may not care about this, if you hold a security clearance job, or are interested in pursuing a career in the military or government, hold a political position, work in aviation or any type of job that requires health care checks, this is important to know.

It’s also important to know that the number of institutions now screening employees is on the rise. Why? They’re looking for employees who are “unstable” or cost too much money in relation to insurance treatment and lost work days. Furthermore, children and teens can have an even tougher time when given a diagnosis as it can impact school, college, or potentially present a barrier to certain careers.

Treatment – Who’s Controlling It?

The focus of my therapeutic approach is collaboration. I believe in a strength-based approach that focuses on the client, rather than the problem. Furthermore, I believe that change happens when the primary focus of therapy is on the client’s goals for the future, not the pain and discomfort of today.

However, when utilizing insurance to pay for treatment, the insurance company dictates the course of treatment. They set the parameters by determining the length of treatment allowed and type of therapy used. Furthermore, they can discontinue paying for treatment at any time.

Remember what I said in the beginning about the ethical code? Well, included in the Code of Ethics is something called “client abandonment.” If the insurance company suddenly decides they are no longer willing to pay for services (for any number of reasons), what then is the client do? I can’t very well expect my clients to trust me and put their all into the therapeutic process if, at any time, I may abandon them.

Also, If I’m constantly focused on demonstrating medical necessity, i.e., symptoms and negative behaviors, I can’t give appropriate focus to my client’s goals and utilizing their strengths to achieve them.

Coverage – For Now

After a brief discussion about why I don’t take a client’s insurance, I encourage them to contact their provider to inquire about their benefits and coverage. More often than not, they call back stating the co-pay was close to my fee, or the deductible was so high, it didn’t even make sense to use their insurance.

Sadly, most mental health coverage is not even close to what it should be. While this is anticipated to change somewhere down the road, the current political landscape doesn’t suggest it will happen in the immediate future.

One of the biggest concerns with coverage and utilizing insurance is that your provider will tell you, “A quote for benefits does not guarantee payment.” Translation: you still may have to pay in full for services provided, after you have received them and your insurance company told you they would pay.

In the industry, this is referred to as a “claw back.” And many would argue it’s a literal translation.

Couples Counseling – How it Really Works

This is where things can get tricky. Some insurance providers claim they offer coverage for couples therapy, but there is more to the story. When your therapist bills for treatment, they use two pieces of information: the type of session and the mental health diagnosis (the medical necessity aspect). However, no billing code exists for couples or marital therapy.

For example: John and Gale come to couples counseling. John and Gale both have the same insurance so one of them becomes the identified client. This person is given the diagnosis. The therapist bills the insurance provider using this diagnosis and the code that indicates “Family therapy with patient present.”

There is another, different type of code (I’ll spare you industry jargon) called, “Problems in Relationship with Spouse or Partner.” However, this code is routinely rejected by insurance companies for not being considered medically necessary.

Insurance companies may very well believe couples counseling is a great idea, they’re just not going to pay for it.

So where does this leave John and Gale and their therapist? Well, let’s say they picked Gale as the “identified client.” This means Gale has to be present for every session, and John can attend as “support” and, according to the insurance company, the focus of treatment should be on Gale’s mental health diagnosis.

But what if Gale doesn’t have a diagnosable mental illness? What if John and Gale are simply dealing with trust issues due to infidelity or they’re grieving the loss of a child and need to learn skills to help support each other?

Here again, we run into ethical considerations for the therapist.

Can you get your couples counseling covered by your insurance carrier? As long as one of you has a mental health diagnosis.

The Waiting Game

More often than not, if you are a new patient using an in-network provider, you will likely run into long wait times just to get in to see someone and will have limited flexibility in scheduling. I’ve heard colleagues say they have waiting lists as long as 2-3 months.

Imagine you’ve been struggling for weeks, months, and in many cases, years. You finally summoned the courage to reach out to someone for help and you’re told you have to wait months just to see them! Not only is this frustrating and disappointing, but it could potentially be harmful.

In most cases, delaying treatment only leads to more severe symptoms and psychological distress.

Bottom line, the earlier you can treat a problem, the better.

Generalist vs Specialist

If you were diagnosed with a rare form of cancer, would you go to your Primary Care Physician for treatment or would you seek the services of the leading Oncologist in your area? The contract between the clinician and the insurance company indicates that the clinician cannot specialize areas of their practice.

For example, in my practice, I focus on stress and anxiety, life transitions, couples, and business professionals. If I were contracted with an insurance company, I would be required to see any and all patients who contacted me – as long as I accept their insurance and have an opening. I wouldn’t be allowed to turn away patients on the basis of their presenting issue if it were outside my specialty areas.

Here again, I refer to the Code of Ethics in which it refers to something called “scope of practice.” Simply put, it is considered unethical for a therapist to practice outside their scope of practice.

For example, if a potential client called and requested an appointment because they were struggling with opioid addiction, I would be required to work with them, per my contract with their insurance company. I’m quite familiar with opioid addiction; however, I do not specialize in this area and I would most certainly be practicing outside the scope of my practice were I to engage in clinical treatment with this client.

Insurance companies are not concerned with scope of practice or specialties. As far as they are concerned, if a clinician is licensed by the state in which they are practicing, the clinician should be able to “manage” common mental health concerns similar to a primary care doctor managing common physical health concerns.

If your teen was addicted to opioids, would you want them to work with a clinician who was going to “manage” their addiction, or a licensed clinician who specialized in addiction and could provide them with resources, tools, and specific skills that could save their life?

Release of Medical Records

For every client that comes to therapy without symptoms that warrant a mental health diagnosis, there are just as many who come to therapy that do. These diagnoses can be anything from Major Depression, Generalized Anxiety, Bipolar Disorder, to Borderline Personality Disorder and Alcohol Dependence.

For clients struggling with these disorders, it often comes as no surprise that the therapist would notate their diagnosis in their record and document treatment methods and their efficacy on the presenting issues.

When you don’t use your insurance, this information remains private. The only person that has access to this information is your therapist – and you, if you wish to view their documentation. When you use your insurance to pay for therapy, your diagnosis, treatments, case notes, and symptoms become a part of your permanent record. It’s not as if you can remove this information after treatment, when you are symptom-free or functioning at a level that no longer requires therapy.

When you apply for new health insurance or life insurance, or sometimes even a job, they can require an authorization to release information to view your medical record. Given the likely changes in the healthcare industry, it is possible that people once again could be denied coverage based on pre-existing conditions, which includes mental health diagnosis. And even if you are able to secure coverage, it may be with a drastically higher premium because of having been previously treated for a mental health diagnosis.

For those that are self-employed (or may ever be unemployed) and need to purchase insurance benefits on the open market, a mental health diagnosis can have a major impact.

Other Considerations & Options

I encourage all my clients to explore and investigate all options to pay for counseling and therapy services in order to make an informed decision. For many, the concerns I’ve outlined above don’t matter and using their insurance is perfectly acceptable.

For others, this is simply not the case.

So what other payment options exist? One option is to use pre-tax dollars. Health Spending Accounts (HSA) and Flexible Spending Accounts (FSA) can be used to pay for therapy. You can also work with an out-of-network provider, which is something I sometimes do for my clients.

What this means is you pay the counselor directly but submit a statement (called a superbill) to your insurance company. Your insurance company will then directly reimburse you. There are even companies that will do this for you for a small fee. The most popular choice today is a company called Better.

However, it is important to note that the superbill submitted to the insurance company must contain a mental health diagnosis and the type and length of session. If you choose this option, you still are faced with the concern of confidentiality and your medical record, but you choose what therapist you work with, for how long, and both you and the therapist can determine what is the best course of treatment for your concerns, not the insurance company. Of course, you will want to contact your insurance company ahead of time to confirm your out-of-network benefits.

Circling Back

For many, reaching out for help from a therapist can be tremendously difficult. Therapy is a very personal and private process and should be treated as such. As a counselor, I hold my client’s confidentiality in the highest regard and would never want to put them in a position that could jeopardize their future ability to obtain coverage, service, or even employment.

As for my client I told you about in the beginning? Fortunately, the therapeutic relationship did not suffer as a result of her denial for services. However, even though she was understanding and forgiving, I still felt terrible. I felt as though I had somehow betrayed her. And I still do.

 

James Killian, LPC is the principal therapist and owner of Arcadian Counseling Woodbridge, CT. Arcadian Counseling helps anxious teens and adults take control of their lives, stressed parents feel more at peace, and frustrated professionals achieve their goals. If you or someone you know needs help, contact us today for a free consultation.