Mental health therapists seek help from Blue Cross

36 Chicago-area practices urge insurer to extend April 30 cutoff for covering telehealth services.

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Colleen Cira, executive director, Cira Center for Behavioral Health

Cira Center for Behavioral Health

Mental health therapists who contract with Blue Cross Blue Shield of Illinois are pressuring the insurer to cover their telehealth services beyond April 30, the current end of Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s stay-at-home order.

In an email to Blue Cross executives, they said extending the coverage deadline would reduce stress for their small businesses needing cash flow and for clients concerned about payment. They said the pandemic and its required isolation are exacerbating mental health issues.

“We are seeing many more cases of depression because social support is such a huge part of dealing with it,” said Colleen Cira, executive director of the Cira Center for Behavioral Health in Chicago. She said therapists are getting more cases involving suicidal thoughts, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder, especially among health-care and other essential workers.

Cira said the email went to about 20 Blue Cross executives. It was from her and 35 other leaders of mental health practices in the Chicago area that together employ more than 250 therapists. A copy was provided to the Chicago Sun-Times.

Blue Cross provided a statement that said, in part, “In this rapidly evolving pandemic, we are working to keep our providers updated on all the changes we are making on behalf of our members.We continue to evaluate our telehealth program to meet the needs of our members and providers and are happy to meet with this group to discuss its perspective.”

Cira said the insurer may be waiting for Pritzker to lengthen his stay-at-home order before extending telehealth coverage but that therapists and their clients need more certainty now.

“Many of our patients do not feel safe coming to an office setting now in light of the COVID-19 pandemic,” their email said. “Additionally, with the school year in Illinois now being closed,many people do not have child-care but still need mental health services.”

It asked that Blue Cross match some other insurers in making telehealth a permanently covered service, or at least covered until there is a COVID-19 vaccine. It also asked that the insurer modify a rule requiring that telehealth consulting be conducted over the MDLive platform. Cira said many therapists cannot get credentials to use MDLive and that its reimbursements rates are lower than at other platforms.

Finally, the email asked Blue Cross to speed reimbursement for telehealth counseling. Cira said payment is taking weeks, whereas in-office visits are reimbursed in a few days.

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