The apparent suicide of comedian Robin Williams, who had reportedly suffered from depression, shows how tough it can be to overcome mental illness. His struggles are shared by millions of Americans—some one in four adults in a given year.
The good news is that mental health care coverage is now more widely available and at least somewhat more affordable, thanks to recent changes in federal law. And there's reason to believe these rules can have an impact on suicide rates: Ken Duckworth, medical director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, told USA Today that about 90% of people who commit suicide suffer from an untreated or under treated mental illness.
Here's what you need to know:
1. If your health insurance covers mental illness, your benefits must be comparable to medical coverage.
If you're covered under an employer health plan that offers mental health benefits—and some 85% of company plans do, according to the Society for Human Resource Management—you're now entitled to coverage that is on par with coverage for physical illnesses. That's the result of the Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act of 2008—the final provisions of which just went into effect. (The parity act mainly addresses larger company plans.) Yet according to a study earlier this year by the American Psychological Association, more than 90% of Americans are unfamiliar with their rights under this law.
The mandate is even stronger for individuals buying coverage through the health insurance exchanges created under Obamacare. The Affordable Care Act included mental health care as one of 10 essential benefits that must be covered, expanding the parity rules to plans bought in the state exchanges.
"The parity act is a landmark law that creates a level playing field in insurance," says Ron Honberg, national policy director for the National Alliance on Mental Illness.
2. Mental health care must have the same coverage limits as other medical care.
Before to the new rules kicked in, you would typically have had to get prior authorization for mental health or substance abuse treatment. And you would also have to cope with yearly limits and lifetime limits on treatments that were lower than for medical benefits.
"Now mental health care treatment rules have to be on par with medical care," says Debbie Plotnick, senior director of state policy for Mental Health America.
That means you cannot be denied coverage for therapy visits or a stay in a treatment center, unless your plan also restricts coverage for comparable medical conditions. And you cannot be charged higher co-pays or co-insurance than you are for most medical and surgical services.
That doesn't guarantee you'll find treatment affordable. The sticking point for many people seeking counseling is that their provider may not be in their health plan's network—far fewer mental health providers are part of an insurance network than other types of healthcare providers. If you're in a plan that covers out-of-network treatment, you'll still be reimbursed, albeit at lower rates than for in-network treatment. Note, though, that the entire bill may not be eligible since many providers charge more than insurers deem "reasonable and customary."
3. Your insurance plan needs to disclose the medical criteria for denial of mental health care.
If you are denied reimbursement or coverage for mental health treatment, you will be entitled to the same appeal procedures as for medical care. The plan cannot simply refuse coverage without providing a detailed explanation that shows why the treatment is not deemed necessary, says Plotnick.
Over the past couple of years, many employer plans have already improved coverage of mental health. And there are early indications that more people are benefiting, particularly young adults who have remained on their parents' health plans. (Adolescence and young adulthood is often when severe mental illness is diagnosed.) A recent study published in Health Affairs found that among people ages 19 to 25 receiving mental health treatment, uninsured visits declined by 12.4 percentage points, and visits paid by private insurance increased by 12.9 percentage points.
The new rules don't cover everyone. Small plans may not be governed by these rules (depending on state laws). If you don't have a large employer plan or one purchased on the exchanges, and if you don't qualify for Medicaid, you may have to scramble. In many regions, and for many specialities, it may also be difficult to find a psychiatrist or therapist who takes your insurance. And if you go out of network, you will only be reimbursed for "reasonable and customary" costs that don't cover your actual bills.
Still, for those suffering from mental illness, these new rules are major step forward. One more reason to, as late night talk show Jimmy Kimmel noted at the end of his Twitter tribute to Robin Williams: "If you're sad, tell someone."