Improving access to Medicare-covered mental health benefits by recognizing state-licensed Marriage and Family Therapists (MFTs) as eligible Medicare providers.
In order for a mental health service to be covered by Medicare, the service must be for the diagnosis and treatment of mental illness. In addition, the mental health service must be delivered by a “covered” practitioner who is legally authorized to perform that service under state law. (MFTs are licensed in every state.) The covered mental health professionals recognized by Medicare presently include psychiatrists, psychologists, mental health clinical nurse specialists and clinical social workers (CSWs). Marriage and Family Therapists (MFTs) are not listed as Medicare-covered providers despite the fact that MFTs have education, training and practice rights equivalent to or greater than existing covered providers.
Limited access to mental health services is a serious problem in the Medicare program. This is particularly true in rural areas, which have historically had difficulty attracting and retaining health professionals. According to a Surgeon General’s report, 37% of seniors display symptoms of depression in a primary care environment. Equally striking is that fact that this depression often goes unrecognized and therefore untreated. The failure to treat depression often leads to more primary care visits and higher Medicare expenditures. The unavailability of qualified mental health professionals compounds the mental health crisis among the elderly population and increases the costs to the program.
Currently, the federal government recognizes five mental health disciplines as core mental health professionals. These are psychiatrists, psychologists, mental health clinical nurse specialists, clinical social workers and marriage and family therapists. Of these five groups, only marriage and family therapists are not recognized by Medicare.
The cost of adding MFTs to Medicare is modest. According to the Congressional Budget Office (CBO), the cost of adding both MFTs and licensed mental health counselors (MHCs) to the Medicare program would total $100 million during its first five years, and $400 million during ten years (CBO Score: 111th H.R. 3962, Sec. 1308). As the number of MFTs comprises about half of the total for the two professions combined, MFTs would account for roughly half of the cited costs. MFTs and MHCs would be paid at 75% of the rate provided to doctoral-minimum practitioners (physicians and clinical psychologists), the same 75% rate applicable to Social Workers, who also are masters-minimum professionals.
In early 2021, legislation was introduced in both the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate, the Mental Health Access Improvement Act of 2021 (H.R. 432 and S. 828), that would add MFTs, as well as MHCs, as recognized Medicare providers. In 2020, the House Energy and Commerce Committee passed a prior version of this legislation (H.R. 945). The Senate has twice approved legislation recognizing MFTs under Medicare (S.1 in 2003 and S.1932 in 2005), while the House also has twice approved such legislation (H.R. 3162 in 2007 and H.R. 3962 in 2009).
MFTs are legally authorized through state licensing laws to treat mental illness. MFTs are required to obtain a master’s degree in a mental health discipline and two years post-graduate supervised clinical experience, much like existing covered mental health providers, such as clinical social workers. This legislation will not change the mental health benefit or modify the MFT scope of practice, but will merely allow Medicare beneficiaries who need medically necessary covered mental health services to obtain those services from a marriage and family therapist. In essence, our proposal increases the pool of qualified providers that Medicare beneficiaries can choose from without change the services.
Significant shortages of mental health professionals continue to exist in many areas of the country, and rural counties suffer disproportionately. Federal government agencies also understand the valuable role MFTs play in increasing access to mental health services. The advisory committee to the Secretary of Health and Human Services recently encouraged inclusion of MFTs in the Medicare program.
The Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA) further recognizes MFT’s participation in caring for underserved populations. One of HRSA’s responsibilities is to identify areas of the country with mental health shortages. The purpose of this designation is to identify communities with unmet mental health service needs and pursue opportunities to recruit qualified mental health professionals to those communities.
Marriage and family therapists are not seeking to expand the scope of mental health services covered by Medicare, nor are they seeking to expand their own scope of practice. Instead, MFTs are simply trying to correct an inequity that restricts beneficiaries’ access to a particular type of qualified mental health provider.
Furthermore, MFTs are not seeking higher payments for their services than are currently paid to clinical social workers. Under our proposal, marriage and family therapists would be paid at the same rate as clinical social workers (75% of the psychologists rate) for mental health services already covered by Medicare, which the MFT is legally authorized to provide in the state in which the service was delivered.
The importance of increasing the number of qualified Medicare mental health professionals by including MFTs is supported by many health organizations, including but not limited to AARP, the Association for Behavioral Health and Wellness, and the National Council for Mental Wellbeing.
Improve access to Medicare-covered mental health services by including marriage and family therapists among the list of providers who can deliver covered mental health services and pay for those services at the same rate as clinical social workers.
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