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Education

For Austin ISD, State Law Creates Barriers for Some On-Campus Counselors

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Texas Tribune

The next legislative session is still more than six months away, but the Austin Independent School District has already chosen its focus issues for the next session. The first one isn’t surprising: school funding. The other is mental health. Austin ISD provides nearly 2,000 students with on-site counseling every year. 

Licensed therapists are based in 19 middle and high school campuses, and they handle a variety of issues: depressive disorders, anxiety disorders, trauma, stressor-related disorders, bipolar, substance-related issues, gender dysphoria and psychotic disorders.

“So, we definitely see the need as a district,” says Assistant Director of Comprehensive Health Services in the Austin Independent School District Traci Spinner.

Teachers and staff can refer students, and students can refer themselves to the program.

“By having a provider actually on campus we’re reducing barriers to care which is one of the main reasons why families don’t seek care for mental health,” Spinner says. “Access to care is one of the top reasons, and then the other top that we hear is, ‘Are providers accepted on their insurance?'”

But, since the district started the program, some of the on-campus therapists have run into issues with health insurance companies.

“It’s not unusual for our school-based mental health providers to be denied by insurance companies from being accepted as an in-network provider,” she says.

Spinner says insurance companies look at how many providers are in a geographic region, and, if there are already a lot of providers nearby that school, the company won’t accept the on-campus therapist as in-network. 

“What we're finding, we are going back and trying to negotiate with insurance companies to say this provider is the only school-based mental health provider that is contracted with the school district to provide a licensed clinician to serve students at designated schools – that it’s different from being a provider in the community,” Spinner says.

To eliminate this problem, Austin ISD is asking the legislature to amend the state’s insurance code so all on-campus mental health providers are considered in-network.