4 Ways to Find Affordable Mental Health Care
Don’t let health insurance issues or lack of funds keep you from getting the treatment you need
Dolores Nurss, who suffers from post-traumatic stress syndrome, spent a long time searching for a mental health professional who accepted low-income patients.
“I kept getting turned down,” she says. “I found the process exhausting, and came very close to giving up in every possible way. It was hard for me to even walk to a mailbox.”
Nurss is not alone. “It’s not uncommon to feel totally lost,” says Theresa Nguyen, director of policy and programming at Mental Health America, a community-based nonprofit dedicated to helping people live mentally healthier lives. “Finding the right treatment — both type and provider — is a lot like meeting friends. You try things out for a while but if it doesn’t work out, it’s OK to meet someone new.”
More than 26 percent of American adults have a mental health disorder (including PTSD, anxiety disorders, depression, bipolar disorder, eating disorders and more), but only 33 percent of them are getting treatment, according to data from the National Institute of Mental Health. The most common reason is not being able to afford it, according to a 2011 study by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.
Here are four tips to make mental health care more affordable.
1. Start the process early
You will save money in the long run by seeking help as soon as possible, Nguyen says. If you delay and your symptoms worsen, you could end up missing work days or even losing the ability to function.
Starting early is also important because it might take you a while to find a qualified and affordable provider. If the task seems overwhelming, ask a trusted friend or advisor to act as your personal advocate, says Nguyen. This is a person who is willing to make phone calls for you, help you fill out forms, accompany you on visits to doctor's offices and speak on your behalf when you're not comfortable doing it yourself.
2. Understand your insurance rights
Under federal law, most health insurance plans:
- Must cover mental health and substance abuse disorders
- Must provide you with an easy-to-understand summary of benefits
- Can't deny you coverage due to preexisting mental health conditions
- Can't place arbitrary limits on the number of office visits
- Must treat mental and physical conditions equally (for example, they can't charge you a higher co-pay to see a psychiatrist than they would to see an orthopedist)
However, some plans may be legally exempt from these requirements or may exclude specific services. For instance, Medicaid, as well as some plans for state government employees, are not required to treat mental and physical conditions equally. If you’re in the market for a health insurance plan, make sure that you choose one that covers the type of care you think you may need.
Once you've purchased a plan, stand up for your rights. If the insurance company denies your request for mental health treatment, you have the right to file an appeal. “Many times a denial will be reversed, and [the insurance company] will cover treatment following an appeal,” says Nguyen.
To file a complaint against your insurance company, start by looking up contact information for your state's consumer assistance agency.
3. Discuss money with your provider
Even if you have insurance, a doctor or clinic might not accept that plan or prefer to accept cash only. So before you start working with someone, ask how he expects to be paid.
If his answer doesn't satisfy you, explain your financial situation and ask if he can make an accommodation. If he refuses, don't take it personally, even if he does.
“I wrote to this psychologist, inquiring whether he ever took sliding-scale patients,” Nurss recalls. “He sent back a sarcastic letter scolding me for asking hardworking therapists for 'free' treatment.”
If you don’t have luck finding someone who takes your insurance, or you don’t have insurance, don’t give up. “If you can’t get treatment through insurance, contact your local community-based mental health services,” says Nguyen. The Health Resources and Services Administration has a nationwide database of community health centers that provide care, including mental health care, even if you don't have insurance.
4. Live where help is available
Where you live is as important as what you can afford. That’s because some areas of the country just don’t have the experts you may need. For instance, 55 percent of all counties in the nation have no practicing psychiatrists, according to a 2007 study by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. Every county in that 55 percent is in a rural area. Overall, urban areas tend to have more mental health resources.
“We sometimes have people driving more than three hours to get the kinds of treatment they need,” says Nguyen. “This kind of distance creates a significant burden for people and parents.”
If you plan to move, look for an area that has the resources to match your mental health needs. To research both private and community providers, try the Behavioral Health Treatment Services Locator, an online app from the Department of Health and Human Services. Enter a zip code and the app will show a map of area providers, including contact information and travel directions.
When looking for affordable care, the key is persistence. It eventually paid off for Nurss. “Finally, I encountered a wonderful therapist,” she says. “At the time, she worked through a low-income mental health clinic that I had never heard of before. She said she'd never met anyone so determined to get well. She charged me 25 cents an hour.”