Online Rx Fills Gaps in Mental Health Care

The doctor will see you now — virtually, that is

Telehealth has expanded the reach of health care — especially in areas where providers are lacking. While some contend that it can never replace an in-person visit for such things as diagnosing a disease, people who use it for mental health counseling swear it’s a life-saver.

“Virtual therapy was much more cost-effective than any other form of therapy I came across,” said one patient.

Francesca Johnson (not her real name) said online counseling was effective at helping her gain perspective on her life — and it was also very affordable.

“Virtual therapy was much more cost-effective than any other form of therapy I came across,” said Johnson, who lives in New York. Her sessions cost about $50 each.

Convenience was a benefit for Johnson as well. Though she’s seen therapists face-to-face, she liked being able to talk to a therapist in the comfort of her own home.

“[In-person therapy] was drastically different because of the therapist, who was not a good fit for me,” she said. “He claimed it was the best way of doing therapy, but I disagree.”

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She’s not alone in her thoughts. A new study published in the Journal of Affective Disorders has found Internet therapy was equally beneficial as in-person therapy. Other studies, though most of them smaller, have had similar results.

E-Therapy a New Norm
Earlier this month, Walgreens launched a new section of its website aimed at providing mental health care for consumers. The drug store chain teamed up with Mental Health America  and MDLive to offer resources that connect people with mental health resources.

[lz_bulleted_list title=”Depression in the U.S.” source=”National Institute of Mental Health”]In 2014, an estimated 15.7 million American adults — 6.7 percent — had at least one major depressive episode in the past year.[/lz_bulleted_list]

The website offers connections to MHA’s free, scientifically based online screenings for depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, post-traumatic stress, and other conditions.

Users will get access to MHA’s network of affiliates across the U.S., as well as MDLive’s Breakthrough telehealth portal, which includes some 1,000 state-licensed therapists and psychiatrists. Breakthrough offers online therapy through computers and smartphones using Internet video conferencing.

Breakthrough accepts insurance — many people will be able to pay a per-visit coinsurance or copay if their deductible is paid. On average, a visit will run about $60 out of pocket, a Walgreens spokesperson said.

But coverage is something each patient will need to figure out, as not all online therapy platforms take insurance. Talkspace, another online therapy service, does not accept insurance but encourages clients to submit bills directly to their provider for reimbursement.

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E-Therapy Café partners with numerous insurers, so services may be partly covered. Dr. Jude Black, the site’s CEO and founder, advises prospective clients to check with their insurer before counseling begins to determine their level of coverage. The licensed professional counselor and life coach based in Bristow, Virginia, said that some of her clients pay up front for sessions and then collect a partial reimbursement, so she produces statements for them to submit.

Black said 44 states reimburse for telehealth services under their Medicaid plans — and that includes mental health care visits.

Even if insurance doesn’t cover the cost, in most cases, Black said e-therapy can be cheaper than traditional therapy. It costs about $150 on average for a visit in her home state, but in New York City — or other metro areas — sessions can run up to $300.

“Recovery comes easiest and least expensively when conditions are addressed during the earliest stages of a disease process,” said one expert.

“The reduced price for online therapy is largely in part [due] to the decreased overhead costs,” she said.

Licensed online therapists still have to pay for malpractice insurance, state licensure fees, professional fees, and continuing education, just as in-person therapists. They don’t have to pay for overhead costs such as an office rental or lease, as is the case with most traditional therapists.

“As such, the overarching cost to effectively and professionally run a company is reduced,” she added.

For patients, being able to see a therapist online can be helpful, especially in cases where they wouldn’t have reached out otherwise. Therapists, however, must check that they are allowed to practice across state lines based on rules set forth by licensing organizations.

Privacy is another concern for many patients and therapists. Some online therapy services offer extra protection for sharing information online instead of connecting users on consumer platforms such as Skype. In 2013, the American Psychological Association released some rules on telepsychology that loosely detail extra security provisions.

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Reaching Out
While Walgreens isn’t offering in-store therapy, it is being praised for helping to raise awareness about mental health issues.

Regardless of how people seek help, Paul Gionfriddo, president and CEO of MHA, says he just hopes they do.

“It’s OK to get help, it’s OK to speak up,” he told LifeZette. “Recovery comes easiest and least expensively when conditions are addressed during the earliest stages of a disease process, before concerns become crises.”

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