For most anyone, the wilderness is a place to find revitalization, refresh the soul, and feel whole again in a busy world full of stress and everything else. For some, it’s literally become a form of medicine as multiple studies have concluded that wilderness experiences—and more specifically wilderness therapy—can treat a multitude of ailments from mental illness to addiction to behavioral problems.
So these days, intensive treatment camps in the outback can actually be prescribed by doctors. That’s why I found this recent story in the Boston Globe so interesting. The report outlined a trend where many families are now suing insurance companies that aren’t covering the treatment of patients through wilderness therapy.
According to the report, “lawsuits have been filed in Florida, Kentucky, New York, and Utah, bolstered by federal rules expanding mental health care coverage, and by improvements in the wilderness therapy industry itself.”
The story includes an anecdote about the Freilich family, whose daughter Kayla had suffered from, “panic attacks, depression, self-harm, and an eating disorder.” After trying everything else, the family was down to its last straw. So they enrolled Kayla in an 11-week wilderness therapy program in Oregon that cost $500 a day and included intense therapy, living in the wild, and most importantly, escaping outside influences like social media.
Without coverage, the family bit the proverbial bullet, dug into college savings, and sent their daughter away to get the help she needed. “We were lost,” Erica Freilich told the Globe. Her daughter is now on the mend, attending university and living a fairly normal life thanks to the treatment. “It was either do this or watch your child die.”
Boston-based attorney Patrick Sheehan has spent nearly 30 years in medical litigation and has filed numerous claims against insurance companies who have denied clients payment for wilderness therapy. He was a source for the Boston Globe article and spoke with us about the issue. “It’s definitely a trend,” he said. “There are an increasing number of outdoor behaviorial health facilities being founded, many of them in Utah. With the opiod crisis we’re facing in this country, these facilities are having a more profound affect. They can be life saving for a young teen struggling with mental health and drug-abuse issues. But when the insurance coverage is denied it can be financially crippling for families who are really at their wits end. (Wilderness therapy) is the final option and in many cases it can be life-saving.”
After a crisis of its own in the early 2000s where a study reported on 10 deaths of patients in said programs, the wilderness therapy industry has taken great strides to self-regulate. Multiple studies have outlined the healing powers of nature and phsychologists have said that the results of studies of wilderness therapy have “inconclusively,” found that these multi-week programs help patients.
So why aren’t insurance companies covering this form of treatment? Sheehan says it’s a pattern that’s part of the American medical industry: patients and doctors find new treatments that work like acupuncture or medical marijuana, and then spend loads of time trying to get their insurance to cover the costs. “Obviously, the reluctance to cover newer treatments is financial,” Sheehan says. “From my perspective, you keep fighting the fight. If the facts are on your side, you have a fair shot at getting coverage. But I don’t see insurance companies changing and offering to cover new forms of treatment any time soon.”
Read the report in the Boston Globe, here.