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Another Voice: Family therapy should be a part of benefits packages

By Carol Podgorski

With the open enrollment period for 2017 health insurance coverage upon us, I once again lament that family therapy is seldom included as a covered mental health service in the benefit packages offered by many employers.

This, in turn, prevents many insurance companies from adding marriage and family therapists (MFTs) to their provider panels. Thus, many consumers are forced to pay privately for family therapy services on top of the costly insurance premiums they already pay.

Contrary to commonly held misperceptions, MFTs do not work only with families, and they are more than “marriage counselors.” They treat individuals, couples and families, and are trained to diagnose and treat a wide array of mental illnesses and behavioral health problems.

There is a strong and growing base of evidence that illustrates the efficacy of family therapy for a number of debilitating and costly behavioral health issues that ravage our families and communities – addiction, eating disorders and domestic violence, to name a few.

One need not look further than the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration website for a host of publications and treatment improvement protocols that provide strong evidence in support of the benefits of family therapy in treating addiction.

Research suggests that for people with mental illness, family therapy in conjunction with individual treatment can increase medication adherence, reduce rates of relapse and rehospitalization, reduce psychiatric symptoms and relieve stress.

Here is an indication of the need: In 2014 alone, over 30,000 Americans died from opioid overdoses. In response, New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman recently commented, “We need every tool at our disposal to respond to the opioid addiction crisis.”

Family dynamics often contribute to risk factors for addiction, but families can also provide the greatest source of support for recovery. Can we really afford to block access to a group of mental health professionals who are uniquely trained to reduce distress by improving how families function?

As you review your mental health benefits during this open enrollment period, consider whether your package provides your family with access to the services you need.

Ask if your plan covers family therapy. Provide feedback to your employer, your insurance company, your state legislators or to the Attorney General’s Office.
With a groundswell of support perhaps we can create some positive change by open enrollment for 2018.

Carol Podgorski, Ph.D., M.P.H., L.M.F.T., is president of the New York Association for Marriage and Family Therapy and an associate professor of psychiatry at the University of Rochester.

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