(Image courtesy of Nasheetah Hossain)
Granada Hills Charter High School

Opinion: Insurance companies unfairly deny mental health coverage

After having received inpatient care for three weeks, Minnesota resident Max Tillitt was beginning to make progress with his heroin addiction. Soon after, his family was informed that their healthcare plan, United Behavioral Health, a subsidiary of UnitedHealth Group, would no longer cover his treatment.

Ten weeks later, Max Tillitt was found dead of an overdose. He was 21 years old.

The epidemic of worsening mental health and suicidal tendencies in the nation is spiking more drastically than ever. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, more than 47,000 people lost their lives to suicide in 2017 with an estimated 1,400,000 more attempts in the same year. Since 2001, suicide rates have increased by 31% in women, while the suicide rate for men has quadrupled.

To me these aren’t just statistics on a screen, it’s a message that I am not alone. It’s as if there is a community out there, spiritually connected through the quite literally fatal desire to take one’s own life.

For better or for worse, every time I’ve been in a psychiatric hospital I’ve shared rooms with adolescents who are, like me, in so much pain that we are unable to survive another night, let alone wait for life to take its natural course. I am another individual represented within these statistics, and so are many of my friends.

Every day, teens around us, whether the center of attention or preferring to remain quiet in the corner of the room, have been or are going through similar situations. Kids who may not even know one another all share the same agonizing experience of losing faith in life itself.

According to Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, the Mental Health Parity and Addiction Act, a law passed almost 11 years ago, requires that health plans and insurers provide mental health and substance use disorder benefits that are comparable to regular medical and surgical ones. From when Congress passed the act in 2008 to 2016, when a study was performed by The American Psychiatric Association, the suicide rate in the nation increased by 16%, while the rate of fatal overdoses spiked by 66%.

“The health insurers are not following the federal law requiring parity in the reimbursement for mental health and addiction; they must be held responsible,” President Trump’s commission on the opioid crisis stated in its report in November 2017.

As expected, insurance companies were reluctant to support this from the very beginning. According to The New York Times, many companies from the industry, such as United Behavioral Healthcare formed a group called the Coalition for Parity which attempted to reduce the requirements, but its efforts were dismissed by Magistrate Judge Joseph Spero

This, however, did not stop the insurance companies from finding loopholes to deny patients fundamental rights. Evidence of this lies in very subtle movements.

UBH, for example, was described by Judge Spero to have an emphasis on acute symptoms and stabilizing crises but ignoring the treatment of underlying conditions, according to the New York Times. Patients were only provided with in-patient care for as long as they appeared healthy. 

One survey carried out by Mental Health Parity and Equity law showed that 74% of employees who received healthcare benefits from their employers experienced limited out-patient treatment, while 64% were forced into an in-patient care day limit. Also, 22% of these employees also had to pay more for mental health care treatment than they did for medical benefits. 

According to Bloomberg Businessweek, mental health service providers are often paid less than other medical service providers. In addition to that, many practitioners are often turned away when they want to join certain networks.

For example, Melissa Davies, a psychologist in Defiance County, Ohio formerly associated with Anthem Blue Cross’ insurance company, was refused re-entry into Anthem Blue Cross even though there were only two other psychologists in the county.

“I found a great number of their providers were no longer practicing, or we’re dead,” Davies said after reviewing Anthem’s directory, according to Bloomberg Businessweek.

Every day, there is an average of 132 suicides in the United States alone. Mental illness is now a national crisis and there have been no significant changes evident in the way insurance companies are handling this. The problem does not lie in renewing rules of the Parity Law, but rather in enforcing them.

However, there is still hope for those who may feel like they are being denied fair healthcare benefits. As a survivor of physical, emotional and sexual trauma, I’ve struggled with self-harm and suicidal ideation since I was seven-years-old. Even receiving therapy, the emptiness within me and the darkness around me seemed to swallow me whole.

By now I’ve been admitted to a psychiatric hospital multiple times for my struggles to remain alive and healthy. I’ve seen the look on my mom’s face as she followed the directory given by our insurance company and called more numbers than either of us can remember.

Some of these doctors were dead and some were not even working anymore. No mother deserves to feel the desperation that mine felt, nor the fear of being able to provide support for a child struggling with mental illness.

Citizens across the country are becoming more aware of their rights and are suing different insurance and winning many of these cases as well. There has developed a national movement that aims to fight the stigma against mental health care and fights to create a more accepting society for people who suffer from mental illness.

The first and most crucial step in the right direction is providing the U.S. Department of Labor with more resources to evaluate and regulate the thousands of insurance plans that are out there.