When I began my life as a mental health worker well over 30 years ago, the words “managed care” weren’t even a blip on the radar. Almost everyone had personal insurance. People who had an HMO were mostly factory workers, and to have an HMO or a PPO was generally not regarded as a good thing. Otherwise, you could go to whatever doctor you wanted, there were no “referrals,” and both physicians and counselors had immense latitude in the first few weeks of treatment.
In those days, there was a joke in our profession that went something like this: “How long does it take to treat [fill in the blank with any issue]?”
The answer: “Twenty-eight days.”
The reason for 28 days is that insurance companies would reimburse for up to 28 days of treatment — even in-patient care — without question. After that, lots of other documentation was required. So, miraculously, in-patient care was often — you guessed it — 28 days.
Of course, no responsible therapist planned their treatments based on that 28-day ceiling, but we had tons of latitude on treatment plans. But the late 1980s brought us major changes in health care. Managed care (HMOs and PPOs) changed the way we did business. I was too new in the field to have an opinion at that time, but I remember the outrage among my supervisors and other veteran counselors.
In retrospect, the change in how insurance worked actually helped us (forced us?) to become better in how we provided services. For example, brief solution-focused therapy, which was something that didn’t exist when I was a graduate student, is a result of this change.
You may be asking yourself whether there is a point to this interesting trip down memory lane. Well, I think we may be seeing something just like I described above happening right now.
Americans are innovative. I am confident that the coronavirus pandemic has created a scenario that will permanently change much of our culture. In the 1980s, therapists didn’t have to think about being “brief” or efficient, but the rise of managed care forced our hands, and we got better because of it.
This virus has forced us into telemental health and other ways of offering services that, prior to March of this year, we didn’t have to think about unless we wanted to. I have encouraged all of my supervisees to pursue the telemental health credential in our state, and I have done so myself, both as a clinician and supervisor, but I suspect that lots of veteran therapists just didn’t want to mess with a new modality.
Imagine that. Once again, here is something that we were forced to do that we should have been doing already because it provides options and helps our clients. In my early years, I learned to be efficient — to do in one session what my teachers might have had the luxury of doing in five or 10 sessions. I did things efficiently because managed care forced me to do so. But shouldn’t we have been doing that anyway?
I’m not belittling my predecessors. My teachers and supervisors didn’t have to do something they weren’t accustomed to doing, so they only did it if they felt like it. Now I’m realizing that this current pandemic is changing the way we do business, and that change isn’t going away when the virus eventually fades away. I predict that some of our clients will never choose to go back to the way it was. And maybe they shouldn’t. Young therapists will probably look back on this time in history and say, “Why did my teachers need a virus to get them to routinely offer services that benefited their clients? Crazy!”
This will also affect me as a college professor. My students undoubtedly will be asking, “Why do I have to come to the classroom?” long after the pandemic is history.
My clients will be asking something similar: “Why do I have to drive all the way across Atlanta and deal with traffic every week when I can see you from the quiet of my home office (in my slippers and jammies) if I wish?”
So, in our very near future, I suspect that graduate programs will not offer telemental health as an optional certification. Instead, programs will be adjusted to provide telemental health as an expected option for clients who fit well with this modality.
If any of you reading this are holding your breath until things “get back to normal,” don’t hold your breath any longer. We have a new normal, and this will almost certainly, in some ways, be very good for us, good for the counseling profession and, most importantly, good for our clients.
Gregory K. Moffatt is a veteran counselor of more than 30 years and the dean of the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences at Point University. His monthly Voice of Experience column for CT Online seeks to share theory, ethics and practice lessons learned from his diverse career, as well as inspiration for today’s counseling professionals, whether they are just starting out or have been practicing for many years. His experience includes three decades of work with children, trauma and abuse, as well as a variety of other experiences, including work with schools, businesses and law enforcement. Contact him at Greg.Moffatt@point.edu.
Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.