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New SC Medicaid rules open online counseling for some, but not all, during coronavirus

Coronavirus

The Medical University of South Carolina has stopped all visitation of patients due to COVID-19. Brad Nettles/ Staff

The South Carolina Medicaid agency is now allowing psychologists and other counselors to give therapy online, amid concerns that many are unable to access their usual mental health care during the coronavirus pandemic.

As the threat of COVID-19 keeps people away from their regular, in-person counseling sessions, insurance companies and Medicare agreed to cover phone and web-based visits. Medicaid, the state-run health insurance program for low-income adults and many children, did not.

But late Saturday, the S.C. Department of Health and Human Services updated its rulebook to expand coverage. 

Now, the program will pay psychologists, counselors, family therapists and social workers to talk with their clients via the phone or video conference. 

It still won't offer the same coverage for counselors who work under a supervisor. At least 200 of these associates work in the Charleston area, according to state licensing records. 

Coronavirus presents extra risk for people struggling with mental illness, according to NAMI. Isolation and anxiety about the disease can exacerbate people's symptoms.

A petition asking Gov. Henry McMaster to extend coverage for people who see one of these associates was approaching 1,000 signatures Sunday morning. 

Jeremy Henderson-Teelucksingh, a local master’s-level counselor with 30 to 40 clients, said he will continue to have to choose between seeing his clients in-person — or not at all.

"In essence, they solved half the problem," he said. "It is a risk that could be mitigated."

A spokesman said the state Medicaid agency is reviewing comments "and may issue additional guidance." 

Rules also block counselors from taking on new clients remotely during the pandemic. 

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Reach Mary Katherine Wildeman at 843-607-4312. Follow her on Twitter @mkwildeman.

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