When Greta Christina fell into a deep depression five years ago, she called up her therapist in San Francisco — someone she’d had a great connection with when she needed therapy in the past. And she was delighted to find out that he was now “in network” with her insurance company, meaning she wouldn’t have to pay out of pocket anymore to see him.
But her excitement was short-lived. Over time, Christina’s appointments with the therapist went from every two weeks, to every four weeks, to every five or six.
“To tell somebody with serious, chronic, disabling depression that they can only see their therapist every five or six weeks is like telling somebody with a broken leg that they can only see their physical therapist every five or six weeks,” she says. “It’s not enough. It’s not even close to enough.”
Then, this summer, Christina was diagnosed with breast cancer. Everything related to her cancer care — her mammogram, biopsy, surgery appointments — happened promptly, like a “well-oiled machine,” she says, while her depression care stumbled along.
“It is a hot mess,” she says. “I need to be in therapy — I have cancer! And still nothing has changed.”
A new law signed by Gov. Gavin Newsom in October aims to fix this problem for Californians. Senate Bill 221, which passed the state Legislature with a nearly unanimous vote, requires health insurers across the state to reduce wait times for mental health care to no more than 10 business days. Six other states have similar laws limiting wait times, including Colorado, Maryland, and Texas.
Unequal access to behavioral health care is pervasive
Long waits for mental health treatment are a nationwide problem, with reports of patients waiting an average of five or six weeks for care in community clinics, at the VA, and in private offices from Maryland to Los Angeles County. Across California, half of residents surveyed said they have to wait too long to see a mental health provider when they need one.
At Kaiser Permanente, the state’s largest insurance company, 87% of therapists said weekly appointments were not available to patients who needed them, according to a survey by the National Union of Healthcare Workers, which represents Kaiser’s therapists — and was the main sponsor of the legislative bill.
“It just feels so unethical,”