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Using Insurance to Get Online Therapy: When and How to Do It (and When Not to Do It)
These are revolutionary times for insurance coverage of mental health treatment. What your insurance plan covers now is probably different from what it covered just a year ago.
For one thing, it’s more likely than ever that your insurance covers therapy and other mental health services. Depending on what your deductibles, coinsurance, and co-pays are, you may be able to use your insurance to get high-quality weekly therapy for very low out-of-pocket cost.
The latest change in the insurance world is that plans have significantly increased their coverage of telehealth services including online therapy. Since the coronavirus pandemic, it’s become much more common for insurance plans to cover online as well as in-person sessions. This means that the same plan that didn’t cover online therapy a year or two ago may now cover it.
So, you may now be able to use your insurance to get online therapy, when that wasn’t an option for you before. The question is, should you? Is it always better to use your insurance to pay for therapy, or are there times when, even if you have insurance, you’re better off not to use it? Read on to learn the answers to these questions and more.
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How Do You Use Insurance to Get Online Therapy?
There are basically two different ways to find online therapists who accept your insurance:
- Use your insurance company website or Psychology Today to find therapists in your insurance network and reach out to them, or
- Use an online platform or app that processes your insurance information and matches you with a therapist who takes your insurance.
The first way gives you more options and more control. You do your own research and pick a therapist based on your own preferences.
How easy it is to get started depends on how good your insurance company’s website is. Some insurance webpages clearly indicate which therapists offer online sessions, while others do not.
Follow these steps to explore your insurance company's online therapy listings:
- Go to your insurance company’s website.
- Log in to your account. (You’ll need to create one first if you haven’t already.)
- Click on the icon or menu that takes you to the provider search page. (My insurance plan calls this part of the site “Find Care.”)
- Find the link to the type of care you want. (My insurance plan lists therapy under its “Behavioral Health” section.)
- Enter your zip code or city and review the list of providers.
- Add additional filters to narrow the list based on your preferences and needs.
- See if the site lets you filter for providers that offer online sessions and use that filter if they do. (My insurance site has a “Profile” filter menu where you can add a filter for providers who are “Accepting Telehealth.”)
If your insurance company’s website is a mess, don’t despair. Another popular option is to use the listings on Psychology Today to filter for therapists that accept your insurance. Psychology Today also lets you filter for therapists that offer online therapy.
Follow these steps to use Psychology Today to find an online therapist who accepts your insurance:
- Go to Psychology Today.
- Enter your city or zip code in the search bar.
- Under the search bar, select the “Teletherapy” tab.
- Expand the search radius using the plus sign next to “Home > [Your State] > [Your Zip Code].” (Note that even when you’re doing online therapy, licensing law requires you to work with a therapist who is licensed to practice therapy in your state.)
- Under the heading, “Therapists near [your zip code],” select the “Insurance” button, then select your insurance plan from the list.
- Add any additional filters that will help you find a therapist who’s a good match for you.
Whether you use your insurance website or Psychology Today to find a provider who accepts your insurance, the next step is to call that provider to confirm. If they do indeed accept your insurance, they’ll explain what you need to do to use insurance to cover your sessions with them. (Usually, you just need to give them information from your insurance card.)
Alternately, you can use a virtual platform that helps you find in-network therapists. Registering on the following platforms (all of which accept insurance) is free. You are only charged if and when you actually set up an appointment.
As far as we can tell, most insurance plans either cover these platforms or not. This means if your insurance covers therapy on one of these platforms, you can choose any therapist they list who is licensed to practice in the state where you live. It’s possible, though, that your insurance plan may only cover specific providers within these platforms.
In any case, signing up is free, so feel free to sign up to explore your options. You should be able to quickly find out if you can access therapy on that platform using your insurance. Then, you can see how many providers you have to choose from and if any seem like a good match.
The Two Ways Online Platforms Charge for Therapy
There are two different ways to pay for online therapy. You can either:
- Pay per session, meaning you only pay when (and as often as) you have a session, or
- Sign up for a subscription therapy service with automatically renewing monthly fees.
The traditional way to pay for therapy is to pay per session. This is nearly always how you’ll do it if you see a therapist you find on your own. The online platforms we listed in the previous section operate this way, too, and this is usually how it works when you use insurance.
When you pay for therapy this way, you can be liable for session fees (or co-pays) if you cancel at the last minute. (In other words, if you cancel without enough notice, you may have to pay for the session anyway.) However, you generally only pay when you have a session. This means you can save money by scheduling sessions less often.
Some online therapy platforms operate on a subscription basis. Many of these platforms, like our sponsors BetterHelp and Talkspace, charge monthly. What you pay—and what you get for what you pay—depends on the plan you sign up for. Once you’ve signed up, you’re charged the same amount no matter how much or how often you’re using the service. This works a little differently when you use insurance to cover a subscription-based therapy service.
Using Insurance to Cover Subscription-Based Therapy Services
Using insurance to cover online therapy platforms can make them even more affordable. While many subscription-based therapy services don’t accept insurance, some do.
For example, Talkspace (a sponsor) is covered by an increasing number of insurance plans. Based on our research, some insurance plans that cover Talkspace bill you weekly regardless of how much you’re using it. Others bill for Talkspace on a per-session basis like they would for traditional in-person therapy.
How Insurance Bills for Messaging on Talkspace
In either case, Talkspace charges seem to run weekly instead of monthly when you use insurance, meaning you owe a co-pay every week instead of a subscription fee every month.
Another subscription-based online therapy service that accepts insurance is Cerebral. They offer different mental health packages including therapy and medication management or therapy only. According to their site, when you use insurance to get an “in-network subscription,” you pay a reduced monthly fee as well as paying a co-pay for each virtual visit.
Whether these options are the best and most affordable choices for you depends on your insurance plan and what your local and virtual options for therapy are.
So, When Should You Use Insurance to Pay for Online Therapy?
Basically, you should use insurance any time it saves you money while letting you work with a good therapist who’s a good match for you.
Saving money is the point when you use insurance, but it isn’t the only thing that matters. Getting the right kind of therapy at the right time is what matters most. The best therapist for you may not be in your insurance plan’s network, and that’s one of the only times that you shouldn’t use insurance.
However, not everyone has highly specific therapist preferences. You might not know what you need or want in a therapist at all—and that’s okay. In fact, it’s normal when you’re new to therapy. You need to get started before you can get a sense of what works best for you. If this is the case, you might as well start with someone who’s in-network with your insurance plan.
What About Out-of-Network Benefits?
Whether you should use out-of-network benefits to see an out-of-network therapist is more complicated. In most cases, what you pay to see an out-of-network therapist will be higher than what you’d pay to see an in-network therapist. However, it will usually be less than your out-of-pocket cost would be if you weren’t using insurance at all.
Before You Use Out-of-Network Benefits, Do Your Research!
The catch is that out-of-network benefits can be tricky to use. In many cases you have to pay upfront for therapy and submit paperwork to your insurance company to get them to reimburse you. And sometimes, after all the headache and the hassle, you don’t end up saving that much, or your insurance company denies the claim. Before you try to use your out-of-network benefits to cover therapy, we recommend that you read our article about them and confirm how they work in your plan.
(Also note that an increasing number of plans don’t offer out-of-network benefits at all, so don’t assume your plan does. Check your plan documentation or talk to customer service to find out.)
If you have out-of-network benefits, our strongest recommendation is that you research them to find out how they work before deciding whether it’s worth it to try to use them.
When Shouldn't You Use Insurance to Pay for Online Therapy?
There are sometimes cases when you have insurance but it’s better not to use it. You don’t want to use insurance to pay for therapy when:
- Paying out-of-pocket for therapy would actually cost less than using your insurance, or
- The specific therapist, or kind of therapist, you want to see doesn’t take insurance or isn’t in your insurance plan’s network.
Usually, insurance saves you money. However, there can be cases when a therapist offers a sliding-scale rate that’s lower than your coinsurance. You may also have affordable local therapy options that offer low-cost or even free therapy that’s cheaper than a co-pay.
Another time that using your insurance might not save you money is when you have a high-deductible insurance plan.
A deductible is the amount of money you have to pay out of pocket before your insurance kicks in. So, if your deductible is $5000, you have to pay $5000 out of your own pocket before your insurance starts contributing anything.
This means if you had no other medical expenses and started seeing a therapist who charges $100 per session, you’d have to see that therapist 50 times before you got an insurance contribution on your 51st visit. (Note that there are only 52 weeks in a year.)
However, if you have regular medical expenses (such as frequent specialist appointments and prescriptions), you’ll reach your deductible faster and start saving money sooner. In that case, it’s usually still worth it to use insurance for therapy even if it doesn’t save you money right away.
What If You Don't Have Insurance (or Don't Want to Use It)?
If you don’t have insurance, don’t worry. You still have many ways to get affordable therapy. You can check out the following articles on OpenCounseling to learn about other affordable options:
- Sliding Scale Therapy: What It Is and How to Get It
- How Much Does Therapy Cost? Can You Get Therapy for Free?
- Hidden Gems of Affordable Therapy: Community Counseling Agencies
- How to Get Affordable Therapy at Integrated Primary Care Clinics
- A Skeptic’s Take on BetterHelp: Is BetterHelp Affordable?
Even though there are many options for people who don’t have insurance, it’s still worth seeing if you might be able to get it. For one thing, more people are eligible for Medicaid than realize it.
Consider Using the Health Insurance Marketplace!
The Health Insurance Marketplace (also known as “the exchange”) makes it easier to get affordable insurance if you’re self-employed or if your employer doesn’t offer insurance.
Depending on how much money you make, you can qualify for reduced premiums and can end up paying little to nothing out of pocket for your plan. Even high-deductible plans have benefits, especially if tax credits based on your income lower your premiums so much your deductibles are basically the only out-of-pocket expenses you’re paying.
Having insurance takes a lot of stress and pressure away and helps you get the healthcare you need. So, if you can get affordable insurance, we recommend signing up!
Insurance coverage for therapy and other mental health services is better than ever. It’s more likely than ever that your insurance plan covers online therapy.
There are more reasons to use insurance to pay for therapy than there are not to use it. Using your insurance can significantly reduce how much you pay.
And it’s pretty easy to use your insurance plan’s website or Psychology Today to find a provider who accepts your insurance. There are user-friendly online platforms that accept insurance, too, like Amwell and Talkspace (a sponsor).
It might be less valuable to use your insurance if you have a high deductible plan or if your plan’s list of in-network providers isn’t that good. We also don’t think it’s worth it to use insurance if by not using your insurance, you can see a therapist who’s a better match. Fortunately, there are many other ways to find affordable therapy if insurance isn’t an option (or a good option) for you.
However, if you have insurance, and you can find a good therapist who’s a good match and who accepts your insurance, we think that’s the best possible option. We encourage you to look into getting insurance if you don’t have it and to use your insurance to get the care you need.
Starting therapy can be scary, but we’re here to help
Stephanie Hairston is a freelance mental health writer who spent several years in the field of adult mental health before transitioning to professional writing and editing. As a clinical social worker, she provided group and individual therapy, crisis intervention services, and psychological assessments.