For New York Creative Arts Therapists and the Curious: Insurance Information

Many art, music, drama, poetry, dance and other creative arts therapists in New York State, now that we have Licensing (thanks to the tireless efforts of NYCCAT: the New York Coalition of Creative Arts Therapists) want to know more about how health insurance works in NY, especially those in private practice, so this post is some clarification about what I know in my experience since I got licensed in 2005, when we first got licensing.

Before getting my license, I was operating a private practice without a license and not able to take any insurance from patients, so I was naturally more than excited to be recognized finally as equal to social workers and other psychotherapists. The license was far more meaningful in terms of respect for our work and for the creative arts therapies than about insurance reimbursement, but money is a big part of respect.

Having the license gave art therapists working in hospital and other settings the chance to be paid equal to other clinical practitioners. Those in private practice were able to use the license to get reimbursed by SOME health insurance companies.

At present, Cigna, Aetna, and United Health/Oxford are the health insurance companies which I have had good experience with, in terms of getting any reimbursements and having the ability to take on patients who wanted to use their insurance for therapy.  There is only a small percentage of such patients who would be willing to come to a therapist if their particular insurance would not reimburse, so this is pretty important for those who want to take insurance and want a large bulk of their practice to involve health insurance reimbursement. The reason a therapist chooses this is for building or keeping their caseload to a certain amount, not because it is easier!

Taking on patients with insurance brings many challenges. First of all there is the difference between in network and out of network reimbursement. Many people think it’s good to get on “panels” otherwise known as being an “in network provider”, which means that people who have that particular insurance can pay you a copay for each session, which is usually the part on the member’s insurance card that says “Specialist” and then an amount, which usually ranges from 0-$45, sometimes $50. People with the same insurance can have a range of copays, so if you are in network with Cigna, for example, you may have a patient who has no copay at all and no deductible in network, in which case, you usually have to fill out the 1500 claim form and submit it to Cigna and wait to get paid. You may have other patients with copays. With Cigna, if it isn’t 0, it ranges from 25$-45$. The advantage of a patient having a high copay is simply that you get paid quicker, as the fee you get per session is exactly the same no matter what the copay. A patient got the mistaken idea that when her copay went up, at least I was being paid more, but I explained to her that I get the same $67.93 per session no matter what amount she pays. This brings up a big disadvantage with being an “in network provider” with an insurance company. The fee is set and you have no say about how much it will be per session. For every individual session you get paid the same amount. Most insurance companies don’t seem to raise the fee properly every year to account for adjustment in cost of living. In the many years I have been in network with Cigna, and paid $67.93 per session, this year was the first year Cigna raised the individual therapy session fee to $71!

So one advantage of being in network is that most people do not have mental health or medical deductibles in network. However, this seems to be changing a lot, and is an important thing to check out when you get a new in network patient. The reason for this is the following: a patient comes and only has one or maybe 5 sessions. They pay you the copay as it says on the card. You submit the claim to the insurance company, only to find out that the person has a deductible of $600 if you’re lucky, or maybe $2000. This is most problematic with someone who comes one to 6 times and then stops, as you get stuck chasing an ex patient for money they now owe you. I have two of these situations going on. In one case the first session which insurance companies pay more for, Cigna pays $150 for the initial session, so I’m stuck texting and leaving messages with this patient that came once. It’s been at least 6 months now and she still owes me $150. In another case, the patient came about 5 times and owes me for those sessions. Through numerous emails and texts, I finally got this patient to start a vague payment plan which is already imploding. I don’t remember how much the patient owes, but it is probably about $300 or more, and I still don’t have it.

Another problem with being an in network provider is that insurance companies have all kinds of strange deals with agencies and schools, which may not be obvious until you have submitted a claim. I have a terrible situation going on because one of my patients had a very confusing plan with Cigna due to the school the patient is affiliated with. I am used to submitting claims to one Cigna fax number and then following up with a phone call to make sure the claim is processing. (Another part of the annoyance of dealing with insurance in network and out of network, paperwork, submitting claims and following up to make sure the claim is processed and paid, a very frustrating and time consuming activity that basically sucks and makes you want to scream at the poor customer service people who have the terrible job of dealing with irate providers all day. So in this weird case, it took a few months to even figure out that I had submitted the claim to the wrong place and faxed it to another place which was incorrect as well, or sent it in the mail. I finally through a few frustrating phone calls and looking again at the patient’s card, found an address to send the claims to. These claims now represent about 18 sessions from January to June 2013, and I have not been paid a cent by Cigna. Through more phone calls to different numbers and getting claim statements in the mail that my claim was being processed, I found out that the institution that handles the claims is waiting for a price quote from Cigna. I won’t go into further detail about this, as it is obviously incredibly frustrating to imagine not being paid for about six months of sessions! The only way to avoid this kind of disaster is to look very carefully at the patient’s insurance card the very first time s/he comes to a session to make sure you have all the info, not just the ID number and the usual stuff but look at the address and contact info and see what kind of Cigna or whatever insurance it is and what it is called, as the companies are huge and have all kinds of subsets of different arrangements.

Also, if you have longterm in network patients, watch out for the new year, which is when their plan could change drastically; the copay could go up or down, and there could suddenly be a large deductible, which, depending on the patient, could drastically change whether or not s/he even is able to continue therapy. Also in July, some employers change things around and have their fiscal year start over, so that is another time when you could suddenly find out your in network patient got their insurance switched to another insurance. It just happened to me with a patient, but luckily I take the other insurance out of network, the deductible was low enough and the patient is invested and ok with these changes…

OK: Out of network, advantages and disadvantages…: As an “out of network” providor, you set your own fee, which is really great, believe me! It means I can finally charge my full fee! The insurance company, if they pay your particular type of license, will pay you a percentage of that fee, and the patient pays a “coinsurance” fee which is the rest, and can range from 50%, not so great, to lower. Of course the more the insurance company pays, the better, and the more likely your patient is to be ok with having you as an out of network provider. Most therapists have these patients pay the fee in full and then they submit the claim to the insurance company, and the insurance reimburses the patient. Of course, being in NYC, and being a “nice” therapist when it comes to these things, as most of these out of network patients tend to be students, often either Aetna or United Healthcare, and as such, they cannot pay up front unless I am lucky enough to get a student whose parent pays me directly, anyway, I usually end up just submitting to the insurance and then either having the patient pay part of it or none of it until the insurance company sends the check to me directly for their portion of the fee. So this can be tricky, as there are many patients who don’t really want to have to pay up front, and given the choice, would just find an in network provider so they could simply pay a low copay. As an LCAT, I am paid out of network by as I mentioned above, Aetna and United Healthcare/Oxford. Blue Cross Blue Shield and GHI do not pay LCATs otu of network, so you cannot bill them. I have some patients who have Blue Cross, for example, who are committed to working with me and just pay me on my sliding scale. This is one of the good cases of not being able to take someone’s insurance. You get paid by your patient and don’t have to submit claims and waste time with insurance companies.

In addition, you don’t have to figure out a diagnosis for the patient, which in some cases is a big relief, as it can be tricky figuring out the right diagnosis for some patients. Not everyone has an obvious depression or anxiety disorder, which is most common for private practice, and some people present with symptoms that do not fit any particular diagnosis very well, so putting down the number for the diagnosis on the claim form is another big important potentially headache making part of taking insurance. Luckily in most cases with insurance the diagnosis is obvious; it is especially helpful when someone comes in who already takes prescribed psychotropic meds, though that is not always an obvious pointer to the diagnosis. There are no particular meds usually for such disorders as the skin picking or hair pulling disorder, which are now included in the chapter on Obsessive Compulsive Disorders; it could take a long time to even find out that your patient has such types of symptoms.

Anyway, I digress. All this is to say that people are wrong when they say to wait until your patient walks in the door to discuss fees. This is an old fashioned out dated point of view. It is actually much easier and usually you have no choice about it, to figure this out in a phone conversation or by email before your patient comes to you. I had someone come in only to find out that I did not take her credit card which she was using for all medical fees with Cigna. I was not sure she would find many therapists who would take her credit card, but maybe some therapists out there have started taking credit cards. Anyway it was a waste of her and my time. Sometimes it is clear that the person will not be using their insurance and in most of these cases I do wait to meet them to discuss fees. However, it is much easier to figure out what’s going on with insurance payment right away, especially with non Cigna patients.

In most cases, the patient does not know much about their mental health benefits and needs to be guided to contact Aetna or United or whatever and ask the following questions and then call you back if they find out they can work with you or figure out what they want to do about the fee:
Do I have out of network benefits for outpatient mental health providers? Is there a deductible? How much is it? What percentage of the providers fee does the insurance pay and how many sessions are covered? The last question is very important, as some companies only cover 20 sessions. The average used to be around 32, but now it can be as low as 20. Supposedly, insurance companies are not allowed to limit sessions if the patient has what is called a “biological disorder”. As far as I have found, that only refers to a few diagnoses, depression and bipolar disorder, schizophrenia and maybe a few others, but no anxiety disorders are included. I’m not sure about PTSD. However, even this “rule” seems to not be followed by all health insurance companies…

 

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In addition, Medicaid and I think Medicare patients get no reimbursement for LCATs, so you either have to charge Medicaid patients a super low fee and consider them to be your “Pro Bono” patient, which I have done in rare cases. In my experience, it is worth it to do this when you have a very interesting kind of patient and the work is extremely rewarding and different from any other kind of work you have done. One of my most transformed patients is such a person, and it is one of the most rewarding experiences I have had recently in my private practice. As they say, great things come in small packages, ie. low fee!
This sums up most of the important info I have garnered from my experience as an LCAT in private practice dealing with insurance companies. There are also a few patients I’ve had who had only in network benefits but as their copay was $50, I was able to make a deal with them to pay around that much and not use their insurance…

Also, with art therapy groups in private practice, check with the insurance company what the rate is for that, because it is usually much lower than for individual therapy. Cigna pays only $40 per group session, for example.

Note to LCATs out there: as far as I know, Blue Cross, Medicaid and other insurance companies that limit their reimbursement to psychiatrists, psychologists and social workers do not care about the benefits of art therapy or other variants of creative arts therapies and there seems to be nobody to contact who would have any influence whatsoever on whoever decides what professionals to reimburse or not in NY state, so I would not waste time with individual companies trying to convince them to start paying us. Probably the more politically active among you may know which politicians or other organizations to work with to lobby or promote paying LCATs, so that is a great thing to do, but the insurance companies themselves do not care and are such huge beaurocracies, you might as well bang your head against the wall rather than waste any time trying to change their policies…
I hope this proves helpful. Please feel free to comment and post further questions which I will try to answer…

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8 thoughts on “For New York Creative Arts Therapists and the Curious: Insurance Information

  1. Excellent summary Natasha. Thanks for sharing your experience in such detail. Everything you said matches what we have experienced in our practice.
    Drena Fagen, LCSW, LCAT
    nycreativetherapists.com

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  2. Natasha,

    Thank you for this very clear accounting of some of the issues LCATs in private practice face. I too have found Blue Cross/Blue Shield unmovable despite strong advocacy by my patients (and sometimes their employers) about the necessity of the services. I recently was told that if an MD wrote a letter stating that in his or her opinion the patient required the services and that I was the best provider for them that there may be some success, but I have not yet tried this.
    One thought: I have used Square to take credit cards for payment for a year now. It had simplified payment for some patients, reduced the risk of bounced checks, and my patients tend to appreciate the option. You lose 2.75% on the transaction, but it is easy and the fees are retained within a business day. I think it’s enhanced my practice to have this option.

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  3. There are low cost tools to help therapists process insurance billing. One of these is MyClient’s PLUS. I have used this with my practice and found it to be very helpful – automatically fills in the 1500 claim form and allow credit card billing. It will take lots of head aches. Oh, and it notifies you of any issues, such as rejections. Lastly, it will deposit everything electronically.

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  4. So helpful! Thanks so much for taking time to write this. I appreciate the helpful comments as well. Go LCATs!

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  5. Great article! As a recently licensed LCAT in NY, the process of setting myself up for a private practice feels daunting, and I really appreciate this comprehensive, real-world overview!

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  6. Thank you for writing so elaborately on the topic of dealing with money, setting fees and insurance companies. I’ve been an art therapist more than 30 years and had a thriving private practice. As economics changed as well as insurance costs and benefits, I’ve noticed a drop in my practice. I started to consider applying for acceptance as an “in-network” provider and looked into many companies that also accept my Marriage & Family Therapist license. After reading about your experience I’ve decided to hold out a bit longer.
    This was just the information I was looking for.
    Judith Levy-Arkin, ATR-BC, LCAT, LMFT, LP.

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