Study shows people waiting longer and paying more for mental health care

Patients often forced to go out of network

DENVER, Colo. - It's supposed to be just as easy to get mental health care as it is to get care for any other condition. But a new study is finding that might not be the case, even though it has been the law for nearly a decade. That's leaving people struggling to get the treatment they need.

It has been two years since Stephanie Preston found out her son had Autism and ADHD.

"He's exceptionally bright but needs some help with those social aspects," Preston says.

And she's still waiting for that help, because she can't find an in-network provider to provide the specialized therapy he needs.

"We couldn't find a therapist who could get us in within a year," Preston says. "We're currently waitlisted at the place where he receives cognitive therapy and we have been on the waitlist since April."

She could search for a provider out of network, but doing that for his treatment so far has taken a toll, she said.

"Over the last two years including his diagnosis out of pocket we have spent about 15,000 dollars," Preston said.  

Unfortunately, Preston's struggle isn't unique.

A new study found in 2015 people who needed behavioral care used out-of-network providers four to six times more often than for medical and surgical care.

"It's really debilitating," Preston says. "If we didn't have the resources that we do to be able to help him I don't know where we'd be."

The study also found behavioral and mental health professionals are less likely to work with insurers because they are paid 20 percent less than medical and surgical providers, often for providing the same care.

As a result, there aren't enough caregivers to meet patient demand, translating to long waits and high prices.

"I think this ought to be a wake up call for all of us," says Andrew Romanoff, President and CEO of Mental Health Colorado.

He said insurance companies must obey the law and be held accountable when they don't.

"They are not victims of this market. They are shaping it," Romanoff added. "It's not enough for them to say well we can't find mental health professionals but we're not paying them enough. They ought to pay them more."

There are state and federal agencies in place to do that, but they often need proof of inequity.  Romanoff hopes this study provides that.

Preston hopes her son and everyone who needs behavioral care gets it, when they need it.

"Two years to wait for therapy is too long," Preston says.

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