Fighting for my mental health
Coronavirus lays bare the absurdities of American life, starting with our healthcare system
Update: On Wednesday morning, the insurance company called to say they’d cover my counseling at the in-person rate on an interim basis. This isn’t over.
I started going to therapy in January seeking help with depression and anxiety that had gotten the best of me since high school. It was a good move; my only regret is that I didn’t start 10 years ago.
My psychologist called me on Friday to let me know she was shutting down her office due to the COVID-19 pandemic and moving all appointments to telehealth calls via a secure application.
I understood and respected her decision. She had more foresight than, for example, our governor, who spent last week downplaying the virus and waited until Sunday evening to close our kids’ public schools.
The psychologist advised me I should call my health insurance provider and ask if remote calls for mental health appointments would be covered under my plan. (My plan only partly covers regular in-person visits; I fork over a $60 copay every time.)
So I called the Blue Cross Blue Shield of South Carolina help hotline Monday, spent an hour on hold, and learned that my insurance wouldn’t cover a penny of the cost for remote mental healthcare. I pay this company a lot of money for the right to get screwed.
The actions of private health insurance companies are no less farcical in normal times, but crises have a way of heightening contradictions. For the time being, BCBS is saying to me — and, presumably, to a lot of other South Carolinians — that mental health will have to wait. The company is sending that message at a time when many of us are isolated and vulnerable.
So I missed my regular appointment on Tuesday and instead spent my time on a second call with BCBS pleading my case. To accomplish this phone call, I had to keep my three children occupied while batting away at responsibilities for my day job, which I am doing remotely from home.
On the second call, the polite woman on the line told me my insurance would only cover mental health counseling via a proprietary app used by one hospital system in my area. Needless to say, my therapist is not an employee of that hospital system and does not have access to that particular app. She uses another widely known, HIPAA-compliant app that Blue Cross has not deigned to cover, for reasons they have not deigned to explain.
I convinced the representative to call her liaison to the hospital system, who in turn called someone from the hospital system, who in turn called my therapist, who called me to say she was guardedly optimistic about the whole thing. I haven’t heard back from my insurer yet.
My ordeal is just one of the absurdities laid bare by the virus. Dan Kois captured the moment in his March 14 Slate column “America Is a Sham”:
All over America, the coronavirus is revealing, or at least reminding us, just how much of contemporary American life is bullshit, with power structures built on punishment and fear as opposed to our best interest. Whenever the government or a corporation benevolently withdraws some punitive threat because of the coronavirus, it’s a signal that there was never any good reason for that threat to exist in the first place.
In the past week, we learned that city governments had the power all along to stop landlords from evicting sick people onto the streets; they just chose not to use that power until now. We learned that the Transportation Security Administration’s 3.4-ounce limit on carry-on liquids was arbitrary nonsense that they wouldn’t apply to hand sanitizer bottles during a pandemic.
Interest accrual on public loans to students? Waived. Broadband internet data caps? Vanished into the ether. Public utility companies cutting off the water and power to your house? Not in Detroit, at least for now.
We are getting glimpses of a society built to protect human life and dignity, and it behooves us to ask whether these changes ought to be permanent.
Before this plague runs its course, we as a country have got to make progress toward providing free healthcare for all at the point of service, and toward dismantling the private health insurance industry for good. Our survival may depend on it.
As for me and my mental health, I am going to keep fighting. Even if BCBS makes some special exception for me and covers my healthcare during the pandemic, I won’t stop until they fix their telehealth coverage for all policyholders. Their actions are unconscionable, and I won’t let them forget it. (If you’re experiencing similar issues with telehealth and your insurance company, let me know by replying to this email. Let’s win this together.)
It’s no replacement for therapy, but currently I’m fighting my depression by fighting the company that stands in the way of my wellbeing. Honestly it feels good to have an enemy.
The image at the top is Wassily Kandinsky’s 1929 painting “Inner Alliance.”
For a more uplifting read, I recommend this piece by the poet Anne Boyer about what the virus demands of us. I especially loved this passage:
[F]ear educates our care for each other — we fear a sick person might be made sicker, or that a poor person's life might be made even more miserable, and we do whatever we can to protect them because we fear a version of human life in which everyone lives only for themselves. I am not the least bit afraid of this kind of fear, for fear is a vital and necessary part of love.
In case you didn’t see it, I had a piece published in The New Republic on Monday. It’s called “How Lindsey Graham Could Lose in 2020,” and it includes a lot of juicy bits and asides about the fallacy of Southern Exceptionalism. I hope you dig it.