Medicare, Social Security, and Insurance

1/9/2024 | By John Levan

Medicare mental health coverage has expanded, including support of therapy with a wider choice of providers. Seniors Guide looks at the changes and how they affect Medicare recipients.

On Jan. 1, 2024, Medicare, the federal insurance system supporting over 65 million older and disabled Americans, implemented significant changes to its mental health services coverage, marking a turning point in how mental health care is accessed and provided in the United States. These modifications enhance the scope and reach of mental health resources for Medicare beneficiaries, addressing a key area of need among aging populations, particularly those grappling with the emotional strains of chronic illness, retirement transition, and social seclusion.

The 2024 reforms mark a notable shift in policy, indicating a recognition of and response to the pervasiveness of mental health issues among older adults. The changes expanded coverage to include a more comprehensive array of mental health services, making professional assistance more accessible to those in need. This move not only signifies a critical step towards destigmatizing mental health concerns but also highlights a commitment to ensuring a comprehensive, holistic healthcare approach for all beneficiaries.

The need

Older adults have unique mental health needs

Seniors seeking psychiatric care have unique and complex needs. Compared to their younger counterparts, they often have more medical conditions, disabilities, and potential side effects from medications. Additionally, with less social support, their care is more challenging.

Unfortunately, older adults who are anxious about their declining health or saddened by the loss of loved ones often face significant difficulties in finding professional help. Barriers to care include lack of coverage in urban or rural areas, prejudices surrounding mental illness, and even ageism, which leads some health professionals to downplay the suffering experienced by older adults.

Related: Problems with mental health coverage for seniors

Problems with previous coverage

A sad senior man at home. By Rido. Article on Medicare mental health coverage changes

Medicare’s coverage of mental health services has long been limited to a select few providers, including psychiatrists, psychologists, social workers, and psychiatric nurses. As demand grows, a staggering 45% of psychiatrists and 54% of psychologists have opted out of Medicare. 

With payments falling short and bureaucratic hurdles growing, more than 124,000 behavioral health practitioners have chosen to forgo Medicare participation – the highest number among all medical specialties.

Mental health and the pandemic

The Covid pandemic acutely impacted the mental health of older adults. Although isolation and social distancing measures were necessary for their physical health, those precautions inadvertently led to increased loneliness and feelings of disconnection. These conditions worsened existing mental health issues, such as depression and anxiety, or even triggered the onset of new ones. During those challenging times of social seclusion, many seniors did not receive the mental health treatment they needed.

Medicare mental health coverage changes

The expansion of Medicare mental health coverage will make it easier for Americans on Medicare to access care. Marriage and family therapists, along with mental health counselors who provide crucial services like psychotherapy and group therapy, can finally enroll as Medicare providers. Thanks to recent Congressional action and The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS), over 400,000 therapists can now independently treat Medicare recipients and receive direct payment.

According to the Department of Health and Human Services, 169 million Americans live in rural and urban areas with a mental health provider shortage. Tele-mental health – providing counseling services via telehealth – will help people in those areas struggling to connect with mental health providers and get the care they need.

Closing the gap in outpatient care

Medicare is also introducing new rules that fill the gaps in its coverage for behavioral health services. Now, patients will have access to the care they need without being hospitalized. If someone struggles with debilitating depression or other mental health issues, they can access up to 19 hours of intermediate-level care called an “intensive outpatient program” (IOP). This program is for patients who need more than traditional therapy but don’t need hospitalization. 

Thanks to recent Congressional action, Medicare now covers this new level of care. Patients can visit a hospital’s outpatient department, Community Mental Health Clinic, Federally Qualified Health Center, or Rural Health Clinic.

The improvements to Medicare’s mental health coverage signify a substantial step forward in prioritizing mental health and ensuring access to essential services for all beneficiaries, no matter where they live. It underscores the importance of mental well-being as an integral part of overall health. While navigating the complexities of healthcare, such initiatives remind us that mental health should never be neglected or marginalized. They pave the way for a more inclusive, comprehensive, and effective health care system that recognizes and addresses physical and mental health needs.

John Levan

Freelance writer John Levan focuses on insurance, finance, and manufacturing as well as senior living topics. Based in Pennsylvania, he earned his Bachelor of Arts in English from Alvernia University and Master of Arts in humanities from California State University, Dominguez Hills.