Left stranded when the music stops: What to do about the shortage of talk therapists actually available
An article in the Washington Post by Lenny Bernstein: “This is why it is so hard to find mental health counseling right now” (March 6, 2022) struck a chord with many readers.
The article begins by describing an individual in the Los Angeles area who said she was willing to pay hundreds of dollars per session and called some twenty-five therapists in the area but was unable to find an opening. The person willingly shared her name in the article. Be careful not to blame the survivor or victim – the report is credible – and she maintained a spreadsheet!
One of the main points of the article is that after several years of pandemic stress prospective clients and patients are at the end of their emotional rope and providers (therapists) are over-scheduled and burned out too. No availability.
The problem is systemic. There seems to be no bottom in sight as regards the opportunistic behavior of insurance companies, the lack of behavioral health resources, and the suffering of potential patients. The WP article goes on to document other potential patients with significantly less resources who cannot even get on a wait list. The article documents third party insurance payers whose “in network” providers are unwilling to see prospective patients due to thin
reimbursements from the payer – once again, the individual is unable to get on a wait list or get help urgently needed; supply side shortages are over the top in the programs that train psychiatrists, a specialty in medicine. Psychiatrists, when available, are most often interested in lucrative fifteen-minute medication management sessions, but unless they are “old school” and were psychoanalytically trained in the “way back,” they are rarely available for conversations. This all adds up to a crisis in the availability of behavioral health services.
This leads to my punch line. Often time depression, anxiety and emotional upset are accompanied by negative self-talk, shaky or low self-esteem. One reaches out and asks for help but instead has an experience of powerlessness that is hard to distinguish from the original emotional disequilibrium. The conversation spins in a tight circle – “maybe I deserve it – no I don’t – this sucks – I suck – help!” The person resigns himself to alife of gentile poverty, thinking she or he is not worthy of financial well-being. The prospective patient is left aggrieved. This grievance is accurate and real enough in context, but it is hard to identify what or who can make a difference. Nevertheless, there is no power in being aggrieved. One still has to do the thing the person in distress or with shaky self-esteem is least inclined to do – invest in oneself because one is worth it!
I have spoken with numerous potential and actual clients who pay a lot of money for health insurance. However, when they want to use the insurance for behavioral health services, they find the insurance is not workable. Not usable. The service level agreement is hard to understand, and having a deductible of a couple of thousand dollars is hard to distinguish from having no insurance at all. If the client goes “in network,” the therapists are unresponsive or inexperienced. If the client goes out of network, the therapists are often more experienced and able to help, but onerous deductibles and copays rear their heads. Why don’t the experienced therapists go in network? There are many reasons but one of them is that the insurer often insists the therapist accept thirty cents on the dollar in compensation, and some therapists find it hard to make ends meet that way. In short, as a potential patient, you think you have insurance, but when it comes to behavioral health, you really don’t.
My main point is to provide guidance as to some things you can do to get the help you need with emotional or behavioral upset and do so in a timely way. Turns out one has to give an informal tutorial on using insurance as well as on emotional well-being. I hasten to add that “all the usual disclaimers apply.” This is not legal advice, medical advice, insurance advice, cooking advice or any kind of advice. This is a good faith, best efforts to share some brain storming and personal tips and techniques earned in the “college of hard knocks” in dealing with these issues. Your mileage may vary.
Nothing I say in this article should be taken as minimizing or dismissing the gravity of your suffering or the complexity of this matter. If you are looking for a therapist or counselor, it is because you need a therapist or counselor, not a breach of contract action against an insurance company. You want a therapist not a legal case or participation in a class action law suit, even if the insurance contract has plenty of “loop holes.” For the moment, the latter is a rhetorical point only.
When a person is anxious or depressed or struggling with addiction or other emotional upset, being an informed assertive consumer of behavioral health services is precisely the thing the person is least able to do. “I need help now! Shut up and talk to me!”
Notwithstanding my commitment to expanding a rigorous and critical empathy, here’s the tough love. Without minimizing your struggle and suffering, the thing you least want to do is what you are going to have to try to do. If one is emotionally upset, the least thing you want to do is be an assertive consumer of services designed to get you back your power in the face of emotional upset or whatever upsetting issues you are facing.
The recommendation is to speak to truth to power and assertively demand an “in network” provider from the insurance company or invest in yourself and pay the private fee for an experienced therapist whom you find authentically empathic, then you already be well on the way to getting your power back in the face of whatever issues you are facing.
If your issue is that you really don’t have enough money (and who does?), then you may need to get the job and career coaching that will enable you to network your way forward. An inexpensive place to start is The Two Hour Job Search by Steve Dalton. Highly recommended. Note the paradox here – the very thing you do not want to do keeps coming up. You definitely need someone to talk to. Once again, the very things with which you need help are what re stopping you from getting help
The bureaucratic indifference of insurance companies is built into the system. The idea of an insurance is a company committed to making money by spreading risk between predictable outcomes and a certain number of “adverse” [“bad risk”] events. It is not entirely fair (or even accurate) but by becoming depressed or anxious (and so on), you are already an adverse event or bad risk waiting to happen. You may expect to be treated as such by most insurance companies.
In a health insurance context, the traditional model for the use of services is a broken arm or an appendicitis (these are just two examples among many). You definitely want to have major medical insurance against such an unfortunate turn of events. Consider the possibility: Buy major medical only – and invest the difference saved in your therapy and therapist of choice.
But note these adverse medical events are relatively self-contained events – page the surgeon, perform the operation, take a week to recover or walk around in a sling for awhile. The insurance company pays the providers (doctors and hospitals) ten grand to thirty grand. That’s it. With lower back pain, headaches, irritable bowel syndrome, autoimmune disorders, it is a different story. These are notoriously difficult to diagnose and treat. Yet, modern medicine has effective imaging and treatment resources that often successfully provide significant relief if not always complete cures for the patient’s distress in these more complex cases.
Consider similar cases in behavioral health. Start by talking to your family doctor. Okay, that is advice – talk to your family doctor for starters. Front line family doctors have the authority – and most have the basic training – needed to prescribe modern antidepressants (so called SSRIs), which also are often effective against anxiety, to treat simple forms of depression and anxiety due to life stresses such as an ongoing pandemic, job loss, relationship setbacks.
Even though I am one of the professionals who has consistently advocated “Plato not Prozac,” I acknowledge the value of such psychopharmacological interventions from a medical doctor to get a person through a rough patch until the person can engage in a conversation for possibility and get at the underlying cause of the emotional disequilibrium. Note this implies the person wants to look for or at the underlying dynamics. This leads us to the uncomfortable suggestion that it is going to take something on the part of the client to engage and overcome the problem, issue, upset, which is stopping the client from moving forward in her or his life.
There is a large gray area in life in which people struggle with relationship issues, finances, career, education, pervasive feelings of emptiness, chronic emotional upset, self-defeating behavior in the use of substances such as alcohol and cannabis (this list is not complete).
A medical doctor or other astute professional may even provide a medical diagnosis when the interaction of the person’s personality with the person’s life falls into patterns of struggle, upset, and failure. Insurance companies require a medical diagnosis. One thinks of such codable disorders as adjustment disorder or personality disorders (PD) such as narcissistic, histrionic, schizoid, antisocial, or borderline PD. These are labels which can be misleading and even dangerous to apply without talking to the person and getting to know them over a period of time. It’s not like the Psychology Today headline – top three ways to know if you are dating a narcissist. I am calling “BS” on that approach.
Nevertheless, if after a thorough process of inquiry, some such label is appropriate (however useless the label may otherwise be except for insurance purposes), then the cost will be right up there with “fixing” an appendicitis – only you won’t be able to do it in a single day – and it won’t be that kind of “fix”. An extended effort and of hard to predict duration must be anticipated, lasting from months even to years. This is not good news, but there are options.
My commitment is to expanding a rigorous and critical empathy in the individual and the community. I consider that I am an empathy consultant, though at times that is hard to distinguish from a therapeutic process and inquiry into the possibilities of health and behavioral well-being. Therefore, and out of this commitment, I have a sliding scale fee structure for my consulting and related empathy services. People call me up and say “I make a lot of money, and want to pay you more.” Of course, that is a joke. I regularly hear from prospective clients whose first consideration is financial. They do not have enough money. I take this assertion seriously, and I discuss finances with them. Between school debt and the economic disruptions of three years of pandemic, people are hurting in many ways including financially. One must be careful NEVER to blame the victim or survivor.
The best way for such financially strapped individuals to go froward is to find an “in network” provider. Key term: in network. But we just read the Washington Post article that furnishes credible evidence such networks are tapped out, in breakdown, not working. Those that are working well enough often deal with the gray area of emotional upset and life challenges by moving the behavioral health component to a separate corporate subsidy at a separate location to deal with all aspects of behavioral health. (See above on “bad risk.”) When I had such an issue years ago, I had to search high and low to get the phone number, web site, or US postal address. You can’t make this stuff up. This is because ultimately, the issues that come up are nothing like an appendicitis or even hard to diagnose migraines. Moving the paying entity to a corporate subsidy is also a way that the insurance company can impose a high deductible and/or copay by carving out that section of the business and claims processing. There are other reasons, too, but basically, they are financial.
You may be starting to appreciate that many health insurance contracts are not really designed to provide behavioral health services (e.g., therapy) the way they are designed to address a broken leg or appendicitis. There is a way forward, but it is more complex (and expensive in terms of actual dollar, though not necessarily time and effort). I will address this starting in the paragraph after next, because, sometimes in the case of behavioral health, people who have insurance do not really have useable, workable behavioral health insurance. For all intents and purposes, they think they have insurance, but, in this specific regard, they have a piece of paper and a phone number that is hard to find. I hasten to add I am not recommending going without major medical health insurance, inadequate though it may be in certain respects.
This brings us to those individuals who decide to go without insurance. What about them? Such individuals choose to take the risk. They are living dangerously because if they do break an arm or incur an appendicitis, then they are going to have another $30K in medical debt [this number is approximate and probably low], along with a mountain of school debt, credit card debt, and bad judgment debt (this list is not complete). These good people need insurance, not so much to get therapy – because, as the accumulating evidence indicates, it really doesn’t work that way – as to be insured against a major medical accident. Many people are not clear on this distinction, but I would urge them to consider the possibility.
I spoke with this one prospective client who began with a long and authentically moving narrative that she did not have enough money and could not afford therapy. This is common and not particularly confidential or sensitive. As part of a no fee first interview to establish readiness for therapy, I acknowledged her courage in strength in reaching out to someone she did not really know to get help with her problems. I acknowledged that one of her problems was she did not have enough money. A bold statement of the obvious. I asked if there was anything else she wanted to work on. It turns out that she was a survivor of a number of difficult situations and would benefit from both empathy consulting, and talk therapy – and I might add job coaching. Here’s the thing – when a person is hurting emotionally, they do not want to look for another job – or a better job that pays more money. But one just might have to do that, at least over the short term, with someone who can provide that kind of guidance to those who are willing. I encouraged her to be assertive with her insurance company and I heard she found someone in network at a low rate.
And if you are a therapist who believes such job coaching compromises the purity or neutrality of the therapy, I would agree. However, never say never. In the aftermath of World War I, when the victorious allies maintained a starvation blockage on Germany and Austria even into 1919, Freud (that would be Sigmund) was reportedly seeing a client in exchange for a substantial bag of potatoes. I have no facts – none – but I find it hard to believe they were discussing matters pertinent to individual and collective survival. So far no one has offered me a bag of potatoes (I am holding out for a quantity of olive oil and basil to make pesto), but see the above cited article from the Washington Post.
We circle back to where we started. If the individual named in the Washington Post article has not yet found a therapist, then I believe there are many in the Chicago area would welcome the opportunity to make a difference for her. She has a budget for therapy, she says. If you have a budget, the work goes forward. It can be confronting and difficult to contemplate, but if you were buying a car, you would look at your budget. If you were planning a vacation, you would think about your vacation budget. If you were thinking of going back to school, you would look at your education budget. You get the idea. What is your budget for empathy consulting, counseling, talk therapy, cognitive retraining, life coaching, or medication management services (this are all distinct interventions, appropriate in different circumstances)? Zero may not be the right number. Just saying. Of course, if the client is in LA and the empathy consultant is in Chicago, it would be a conversation over Zoom. That starts a new thread so I may usefully clarify that I prefer to meet with people in person – the empathy is expanded in person – but the genie is out of the bottle and online can be good enough in some circumstance. (See my peer reviewed article “The Genie is Out of the Bottle”: https://bit.ly/37vxJ0L.)
The insurance system is broken as regards behavioral health (as evidenced by the WP article). There is a vast gray area of people with modest emotional disregulation who genuinely need help. These are not only the “worried well,” but people whose understandable lack of assertiveness in navigating an indifferent (and it must be said unempathic) bureaucracy leaves them high and dry with their moderate but worsening emotional, spiritual, and behavioral upsets. These people deserve help, and are entitled to it even under the specific terms of their insurance contracts. Indeed they are entitled to help even if they do not have insurance, though the revenue model is simpler in that case, though not less costly.
The insurance company has been unable to make money off of this gray area – therefore, the insurance company does what it does best – it turns to making money off of you. But you need health insurance against a major medical event or accident. You want a therapist, not a breach of contract case in small claims court (where the small claim often goes up to $100k). Therefore, it does little good to document having called ten or twenty-five in network providers with no result. Or does it? You – or a class action attorney firm – have a case for breach of contract. Go out of network and forward the invoices to the payer by mail with a tracking number, requesting that the full therapy fees be treated “in network” for purposes of reimbursement, and, therefore, no or low deductible and copay. Of course, one would have to have funds for that upfront, and lack of money is where this circle started. Back to expanding one’s job search skills?
This is crazy – and crazy making behavior – though only as a function of a system that is crazy. You see the problem. I’ll bet dollars to donuts that the insurance payer, when confronted with an actual summons to small claims court, would then find you a therapist – of course, the therapist might be relatively inexperienced or someone who (how shall I put it delicately?) is less motivated than one might hope. Thwarted again!
As I wrap up this post, it occurs to that while it would be crazy for an individual to seek legal redress – it might even be “acting out,” there might be a basis for an enterprising law firm to establish a system wide “class action” for breach of contract. This will not solve your problem of getting help in the next two weeks, but it might be a necessary step to benefit the community. You know the insurance company has the money!
As noted above, your grievance in being over sold unworkable behavioral health insurance may be [is] accurate and real. Nevertheless, I am sticking to my story: the guidance: there is no power in being aggrieved. You still have to do the thing the person in upset or with shaky self-esteem is least inclined to do – dig down, including into your pockets, and find self-confidence – or enough self-confidence for the moment – and invest in yourself because you are worth it!
The one minute empathy training – runtime is actually five minutes, but a personal introduction is included: https://youtu.be/747OiV-GTx4