California is expanding insurance access for teenagers seeking therapy on their own

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When she was in ninth grade, Fiona Lu fell into a depression. She had trouble adjusting to her new high school in Orange County, California, and felt so isolated and exhausted that she cried every morning.

Lu wanted to get help, but her Medi-Cal plan wouldn't cover therapy unless she had permission from a parent or guardian.

Her mother — a single parent and an immigrant from China — worked long hours to provide for Fiona, her brother, and her grandmother. Finding time to explain to her mom what therapy was, and why she needed it, felt like too much of an obstacle.

"I wouldn’t want her to have to sign all these forms and go to therapy with me," said Lu, now 18 and a freshman at UCLA. "There’s a lot of rhetoric in immigrant cultures that having mental health concerns and getting treatment for that is a Western phenomenon."

By her senior year of high school, Lu turned that experience into activism. She campaigned to change state policy to allow children 12 and older living in low-income households to get mental health counseling without their parents' consent.

In October of last year, Gov. Gavin Newsom signed a new law expanding access to young patients covered by Medicaid, which is called Medi-Cal in California.

Teenagers with commercial insurance have had this privilege in the state for more than a decade. Yet parents of children who already had the ability to access care on their own were among the most vocal in opposing the expansion of that coverage by Medi-Cal.

Many parents seized on the bill to air grievances about how much control they believe the state has over their children, especially around gender identity and care.

One mother appeared on Fox News last spring calling school therapists "indoctrinators" and saying the bill allowed them to fill children's heads with ideas about "transgenderism" without their parents knowing.

Those arguments were then repeated on social media and at protests held across California and in other parts of the country in late October.

At the California Capitol, several Republican lawmakers voted against the bill, AB 665. One of them was Assembly member James Gallagher of Sutter County.

"If my child is dealing with a mental health crisis, I want to know about it," Gallagher said while discussing the bill on the Assembly floor last spring. "This misguided, and I think wrongful, trend in our policy now that is continuing to exclude parents from that equation and say they don't need to be informed is wrong."

State lawmaker salaries are too high for them or their families to qualify for Medi-Cal. Instead, they are offered a choice of 15 commercial health insurance plans, meaning children like Gallagher's already have the privileges that he objected to in his speech.

To Lu, this was frustrating and hypocritical. She said she felt that the opponents lining up against AB 665 at legislative hearings were mostly middle-class parents trying to hijack the narrative.

"It's inauthentic that they were advocating against a policy that won’t directly affect them," Lu said. "They don’t realize that this is a policy that will affect hundreds of thousands of other families."

Sponsors of AB 665 presented the bill as a commonsense update to an existing law. In 2010, California lawmakers had made it easier for young people to access outpatient mental health treatment and emergency shelters without their parents' consent by removing a requirement that they be in immediate crisis.

But at the last minute, lawmakers in 2010 removed the expansion of coverage for teenagers by Medi-Cal for cost reasons. More than a decade later, AB 665 is meant to close the disparity between public and private insurance and level the playing field.

"This is about equity," said Assembly member Wendy Carrillo, a Los Angeles Democrat and the bill's author.

The original law, which regulated private insurance plans, passed with bipartisan support and had little meaningful opposition in the legislature, she said. The law was signed by a Republican governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger.

"Since then, the extremes on both sides have gotten so extreme that we have a hard time actually talking about the need for mental health," she said.

After Carrillo introduced the bill last year, her office faced death threats. She said the goal of the law is not to divide families but to encourage communication between parents and children through counseling.

More than 20 other states allow young people to consent to outpatient mental health treatment without their parents’ permission, including Colorado, Ohio, Tennessee, and Alabama, according to a 2015 paper by researchers at Rowan University.

To opponents of the new law, like Erin Friday, a San Francisco Bay Area attorney, AB 665 is part of a broader campaign to take parents’ rights away in California, something she opposes regardless of what kind of health insurance children have.

Friday is a self-described lifelong Democrat. But then she discovered her teenager had come out as transgender at school and for months had been referred to by a different name and different pronouns by teachers, without Friday's knowledge. She devoted herself to fighting bills that she saw as promoting "transgender ideology." She said she plans to sue to try to overturn the new California law before it takes effect this summer.

"We’re giving children autonomy they should never have," Friday said.

Under the new law, young people will be able to talk to a therapist about gender identity without their parents’ consent. But they cannot get residential treatment, medication, or gender-affirming surgery without their parents' OK, as some opponents have suggested.

Nor can minors run away from home or emancipate themselves under the law, as opponents have also suggested.

"This law is not about inpatient psychiatric facilities. This law is not about changing child custody laws," said Rachel Velcoff Hults, an attorney and the director of health of the National Center for Youth Law, which supported AB 665.

"This law is about ensuring when a young person needs counseling or needs a temporary roof over their head to ensure their own safety and well-being, that we want to make sure they have a way to access it," she said.

Removing the parental consent requirement could also expand the number of mental health clinicians in California willing to treat young people on Medi-Cal. Without parental consent, under the old rules, clinicians could not be paid by Medi-Cal for the counseling they provided, either in a private practice or a school counselor's office.

Esther Lau struggled with mental health as a high school student in Fremont. Unlike Lu, she had her parents' support, but she couldn't find a therapist who accepted Medi-Cal. As the only native English speaker in her family, she had to navigate the health care bureaucracy on her own.

For her, AB 665 will give clinicians incentive to accept more young people from low-income households into their practices.

"For the opposition, it’s just about political tactics and furthering their agenda," Lau said. "The bill was designed to expand access to Medi-Cal youth, period."

Kaiser Health NewsThis article was reprinted from khn.org, a national newsroom that produces in-depth journalism about health issues and is one of the core operating programs at KFF - the independent source for health policy research, polling, and journalism.

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