It’s a heartbreaking scenario that is far too common: someone makes the difficult decision to seek out professional help for a mental health or substance abuse problem for themselves or their loved one and is faced with a myriad of roadblocks. They start calling providers on their insurance plan and find that they are not taking new patients, or they no longer accept insurance and only want cash. And the cost of paying out of pocket is too much for many to afford.
Here is the reality: Health insurers are required by law to offer an adequate network of providers for their beneficiaries to choose from, and not just for physical illnesses. This requirement is known in the health insurance industry as network adequacy.
Along with the difficulty of finding a provider who will accept your insurance, the problem is often complicated by a family’s reluctance to seek help for a mental health or drug problem, as opposed to physical illnesses like cancer or diabetes. Despite progress in public education, stigma still looms large.
Once someone takes the leap of faith to ask for help, he or she is too often told, “I’m sorry, I don’t accept your insurance any longer.” When this happens there is a chance they will give up.
It is this reality that spurred North Shore Child & Family Guidance Center to launch a research initiative called Project Access. This entailed creating a survey that was completed by almost 650 people across Long Island. Here is some of what we found:
• Almost 50 percent of the participants said that it was more difficult finding help for mental health or drug problems than finding help for physical illnesses, especially when they were in crisis.
• Nearly 40 percent said that their insurance company did not have an adequate number of providers.
• 66 percent reported that their insurance company was not helpful in finding a suitable provider for themselves or a loved one.
One survey respondent wrote: “A family member within my household required therapy and we had difficulty finding a provider; when we did, scheduling was a nightmare because so many patients were trying to see him. I believe it was because he was one of the few willing to accept multiple insurance policies.” This was a familiar refrain.
Health insurers reimburse mental health and addictions care providers at such low rates that they flee health insurers in droves. This is a civil rights issue and a situation that puts lives at risk.
The NY State agency that Governor Cuomo has charged with monitoring and enforcing network adequacy is the Department of Financial Services. We are using the Project Access data to demand that Governor Cuomo and the Department of Financial Services launch a full scale investigation of access to care in New York State and to hold commercial health insurers’ feet to the fire.
If you agree, print this column, add a note saying “I agree” and include your name and address. You can write to the governor at: The Honorable Andrew M. Cuomo, Governor of New York State, NYS State Capitol Building, Albany, NY 12224; email him at Press.Office@exec.ny.gov; or call him at 518-474-8418.
To read the full Project Access report go to: www.northshorechildguidance.org and click on the Project Access tab.
Andrew Malekoff is the Executive Director of North Shore Child & Family Guidance Center, which provides comprehensive mental health services for children from birth through 24 and their families. To find out more, visit www.northshorechildguidance.org.