Widowed Seniors Are Missing Out On Medicare Grief Counseling and Therapy

Lack of awareness about benefits lead to only 15% of widowed seniors getting mental health treatment after loss of a spouse

Published June 10, 2021

Key Findings:

  • 1 in 5 widowed beneficiaries avoid mental health services due to the anticipated cost or because they are unaware these services are covered by Medicare.

  • More than a third of widowed seniors report “keeping feelings of grief and sadness private,” which could further exacerbate health issues related to depression, loneliness or isolation.

  • The vast majority of widowed Medicare beneficiaries are unable to correctly identify the covered mental health services that are available to them.

  • Only 15% of widowed Medicare beneficiaries take advantage of mental health services covered by Medicare following the death of a spouse.

Study Overview

According to U.S. census data, 54% of women and nearly 20% of men age 75 and up are currently widowed.  

The COVID-19 pandemic has complicated the issue even more. More than 467,000 U.S. adults age 65 and over have died from the virus (80% of all COVID-19 fatalities), creating a sudden surge in widowed seniors. The pandemic has also negatively impacted the mental health of adults of all ages, even before the added stress brought on by a spouse’s death.    

Our survey found millions of those very same seniors may be missing out on grief counseling and other mental health care services that are covered by Medicare because of inaccurate cost concerns or simply because they are unaware of the benefits available to them. 

Graphic callout highlighting number of widowed seniors missing out on mental health benefits

Medicare coverage that can be beneficial to a grieving widow or widower includes:

  • Family counseling
  • Individual and group psychotherapy 
  • Psychiatric evaluations
  • Annual depression screenings
  • Lab and diagnostic testing
  • Medication management

Medicare-covered services may be provided by physicians and physician assistants, psychiatrists, psychologists, social workers, nurse specialists or practitioners and nurse-midwives.

Medicare Part A typically covers inpatient care, while Part B provides coverage of outpatient treatment. 

How Widowed Seniors Are Coping

In a survey of 400 widowed Americans age 65 and over, just 15% reported meeting with a mental health specialist while grieving the loss of their spouse. And just 10% began taking antidepressants or other medications, despite these drugs being covered under Medicare Part D plans and Medicare Advantage plans with prescription drug coverage. In fact, all Medicare drug plans are required by law to cover antidepressants and antipsychotics.

More than one out of three seniors reported keeping their feelings private and not sharing with others, while 8% said they ignore their grief entirely. 

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Graphic showing the percentages of how widowed seniors cope with loss

Most Widowed Medicare Beneficiaries Aren’t Aware of Their Benefits

One reason so few grieving seniors seek professional help is an overall lack of awareness of their Medicare benefits. A vast majority of beneficiaries don’t know Medicare covers a range of mental health services.

82% of those surveyed were unaware that Medicare will cover mental health services at a community health center. In all, there were 11 different mental health services that at least 60% of beneficiaries didn’t know they were entitled to through their Medicare insurance. ​

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Graphic showing the percentages of Medicare beneficiaries who are unaware of their benefits

Three out of four beneficiaries were unaware that telehealth appointments for mental health counseling and psychotherapy were covered by Medicare. The use of telehealth has greatly increased during the pandemic — by more than 3,000% from October 2019 to October 2020 — and Medicare expanded its coverage of telehealth services at the onset of COVID-19.   

More than seven out of 10 beneficiaries were unaware that Medicare covers annual depression screenings, counseling sessions with social workers or psychologists and family counseling. And six out of 10 didn’t even know they could receive covered mental health services at a doctor’s office. 

While a large majority of widowed beneficiaries were not aware of Medicare’s coverage of various mental health services, one in five reported not seeking out therapy or grief counseling because of that lack of awareness. 

One in five widowed seniors also reported not seeking mental health care services due to concerns over the cost, but annual Medicare depression screenings come with no required cost when certain conditions are met. And additional outpatient mental health services require just a 20% coinsurance payment after the annual $203 deductible is met.

Conclusion

Widowed Medicare beneficiaries remain largely unaware of the covered mental health services that are available to them during a time of grief. In fact, three out of four beneficiaries were unaware that telehealth appointments for mental health counseling and psychotherapy were covered by Medicare, and a similar number are unaware that visits with a therapist are covered.

At least one out of every five widowed Medicare beneficiaries have avoided seeking out such services because of this lack of awareness or out of fear of the cost. This means that potentially millions of widowed seniors unnecessarily go without mental health services when they might need it most.

Methodology

We surveyed 400 widowed people aged 65 and older, using an audience pool gathered using PollFish. The survey was conducted May 17 – June 1. To qualify, respondents also needed to currently enrolled in Medicare.

Margin of error: +/- 4% (95% confidence interval)

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