Note pad on a table with numerous descriptive words about mental health next to a cup of coffee

Medicare expands mental health options starting next month

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Suzanne Potter

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(California News Service) People on Medicare who want to see a therapist often wait up to six months for an appointment, but relief is on the way.

Starting January 1, licensed marriage and family therapists will be able to accept Medicare insurance.

Joy Alafia, executive director of the California Association of Marriage and Family Therapists, which represents 36,000 therapists, said the change will help thousands.

"We already see that about 30 percent of people with Medicare insurance do live with a mental illness, and only about 15 percent receive treatment from a behavioral health specialist," Alafia reported. "That data was as of 2021. So this is really a need that exists, wait times are extremely long, and this will help address them."

Therapists can help people who may be lonely and isolated battle anxiety, depression, addiction, mood disorders, stress or trauma. To set up an appointment, people can check with their Medicare provider.

Bindu Khurana-Brown, a licensed marriage and family therapist and associate director of the nonprofit Momentum for Health, a crisis unit for adults with serious mental illness as well as a community mobile response team at Momentum Health in San Jose, said the additional providers will be able to help with immediate mental health needs.

"When somebody finally makes that choice, that I want to get help, they can easily be deterred from seeking treatment if there's nobody available," Khurana-Brown pointed out. "Because there were fewer providers able to be on Medicare reimbursement, it limited just the amount of people who are educated and qualified to help people in need."

Licensed marriage and family therapists comprise 40 percent of the behavioral health workforce in California, which also includes social workers, psychologists and psychiatrists. Older adults are expected to make up one-quarter of the state's population within 7 years, as the over-60 population is projected to grow faster than any other age group.