A Complete Guide to Prior Authorization for Mental Health

Brandon Grill
May 31, 2024

Sometimes getting the mental health support you need is straightforward. You find a therapist, schedule a meeting, and start your journey.

Other times, it’s not so simple.

Prior authorization is a cost-saving measure used by insurance companies, but it can make getting therapy difficult.

So, what can you do if your insurance tells you that you need prior authorization? And what exactly is prior authorization?

What is Prior Authorization?

Prior authorization is a process used by insurance companies. It determines if they will cover a specific medical service, medication, or treatment.

It's a way for them to review and approve the necessity and appropriateness of therapy before they agree to pay for it.

Why Do Insurance Companies Require Prior Authorization?

Insurance companies want to control costs and ensure that treatments are medically necessary. That's where prior authorization comes in.

They aim to prevent unnecessary or overly expensive treatments by requiring this approval.

However, this process can also be a means for insurers to manage expenses and stay profitable.

How Does the Prior Authorization Process Work?

  1. Initial Consultation: You first meet with your therapist or mental health professional. They assess your needs and determine the best course of treatment.
  2. Submission of Request: Typically, your physician will submit a prior authorization request to your insurance company. Another healthcare provider can also do this. The request usually includes details about your condition, the proposed treatment plan, and why it’s necessary.
  3. Review by Insurance: The insurance company reviews the request. They often have their medical professionals evaluate the necessity of the proposed treatment. This step can be complex and vary widely between insurers.
  4. Decision and Waiting Times: The insurance company either approves or denies the request. Approvals can take anywhere from a few days to several weeks, or even longer in some cases. This waiting period can delay the start of your therapy.
  5. Handling Denials: If denied, your healthcare provider may need to provide more information. Or you'll need to appeal the decision. The appeals process can be lengthy and challenging. Note that not all appeals are successful.

The Burden on Healthcare Providers and Patients

The prior authorization process comes with a large administrative burden for healthcare providers. It takes time and resources away from patient care.

As a patient, you’ll need to be proactive. Following up with your provider and insurance company is a good idea. Sometimes, you may need to gather and submit more documentation yourself. More on this later.

Who Gives Prior Authorization?

Prior authorization involves several key players, each with specific roles and responsibilities. Understanding who does what can help you navigate the process more effectively.

The Insurance Company

Insurance companies are responsible for approving or denying prior authorization requests. They use specific criteria and guidelines to determine if a particular therapy or treatment is necessary. Your plan must cover it as well. These criteria can include medical necessity, cost-effectiveness, and evidence-based practice guidelines. However, guidelines vary between insurers and even among plans within the same company.

Healthcare Providers

Your therapist can recommend a specific treatment. However, your primary care physician or psychiatrist typically submits the prior authorization request. They provide detailed documentation about your condition and justify the necessity of the proposed therapy. This might include medical history, treatment plans, and professional assessments. The involvement of a physician is often crucial because they have the medical authority to support the need for the treatment.

The Role of Therapists

Therapists conduct initial assessments and determine appropriate therapy. They work with physicians to get the necessary information for the request. However, the administrative burden on therapists can be significant. They often spend considerable time on paperwork and follow-up communications. This can detract from the time they spend on patient care. Your therapist can also provide support to strengthen the case for your therapy.


As a patient, you play an active role in the prior authorization process. Follow up with your healthcare providers and insurance company often. Ensure all required documents have been received. Make sure they get a prompt review. Being proactive can help address any issues that arise and even speed up the process. For instance, you can call your insurance company to check the status of your request. Or you can ask your provider if any more information is needed.

Potential Delays and the Appeals Process

The prior authorization process can take days to weeks or longer. Delays can impact the start of your therapy, causing setbacks in your treatment plan. If your request is denied, understanding the appeals process is crucial. Your physician can help you gather more information to support your case. Also, you may need to submit an appeal to your insurance company. This process can be challenging and time-consuming, but it’s an important step to ensure you receive the care you need.

Understanding who handles each part of the prior authorization process. This alone can help you navigate it better. Knowledge is power when it comes to accessing therapy through insurance.

Why Does My Mental Health Insurance Company Require Prior Authorization?

Prior authorization can feel like an unnecessary hurdle when you need mental health help. However, there are several reasons why insurance companies require it.

Cost Management

One of the primary reasons for prior authorization is cost control. Insurance companies aim to manage expenses by ensuring that treatments are necessary and cost-effective. By requiring prior authorization, they can prevent unnecessary or overly expensive treatments that could drive up healthcare costs. This is part of their broader strategy to keep premiums manageable for all policyholders.

Ensuring Medical Necessity

Insurance companies use prior authorization to verify that the proposed therapy is medically necessary. This means they want to ensure that the treatment is appropriate for your specific condition and that it aligns with established medical guidelines. By reviewing the proposed therapy, they can confirm that you are receiving care that is likely to be effective and beneficial.

Quality Control

Another reason for prior authorization is to maintain quality control. Insurance companies aim to ensure that patients receive high-quality care from qualified providers. By requiring prior authorization, they can evaluate the credentials of the healthcare providers and the suitability of the treatment plans. This helps ensure that patients are not subjected to unnecessary or potentially harmful treatments.

Prevention of Fraud and Abuse

Prior authorization helps prevent fraudulent or abusive practices in the healthcare system. By reviewing and approving treatments before they are administered, insurance companies can reduce the risk of fraudulent claims and inappropriate billing. This helps protect both the insurer and the patients from potential scams or misuse of services.

Balancing Access and Oversight

While prior authorization can delay access to therapy, it’s a measure designed to balance access to necessary treatments with oversight to prevent misuse. Insurance companies must strike a balance between providing timely access to care and ensuring that the treatments they cover are truly needed and appropriate. This oversight can sometimes lead to delays, but it also serves to maintain the integrity and sustainability of the healthcare system.

How Long Does Prior Authorization Take?

The time it takes to get prior authorization can vary widely, depending on several factors. Here’s a closer look at what influences the timeline and what you can expect.

Typical Timeframes

In general, the prior authorization process can take anywhere from a few days to several weeks. For some routine treatments, insurance companies might provide a decision within a few days. However, for more complex cases or specific therapies, it might take longer, sometimes even up to a month or more. It's important to start the process as early as possible to avoid delays in your therapy.

Factors Influencing the Timeline

Type of Treatment: More specialized or less common therapies may require a more detailed review, leading to longer processing times.

Completeness of Documentation: Incomplete or missing documentation can significantly delay the process. Ensure that all required information is submitted accurately and completely.

Insurance Company Policies: Different insurance companies have different protocols and timelines for handling prior authorizations. Some may have more streamlined processes, while others may require more extensive reviews.

Provider Responsiveness: The speed at which your healthcare provider submits the request and responds to any additional questions from the insurance company can impact the timeline. Prompt communication between your provider and the insurance company is crucial.

Volume of Requests: Insurance companies process many prior authorization requests daily. High volumes can lead to longer wait times.

Steps to Expedite the Process

Start Early: Begin the prior authorization process as soon as your therapist recommends a specific treatment. The earlier you start, the less likely you are to face significant delays.

Stay Organized: Keep track of all documents and communications related to your prior authorization request. Having everything in one place can help you and your provider respond quickly to any requests for additional information.

Follow Up Regularly: Don’t hesitate to contact your insurance company to check the status of your request. Regular follow-ups can help ensure that your request is being processed and can alert you to any issues that need to be addressed.

Ensure Complete Documentation: Work with your healthcare provider to make sure that all necessary documentation is submitted correctly the first time. This includes detailed treatment plans, medical histories, and any other supporting information.

Potential Delays and How to Handle Them

Delays in the prior authorization process can be frustrating, especially when you need timely access to therapy. It’s even worse when you look at the high cost of therapy without insurance.

If you experience delays:

Communicate with Your Provider: Keep your therapist or doctor informed about any delays so they can follow up with the insurance company on your behalf.

Escalate If Necessary: If the delay significantly impacts your treatment, ask to speak with a supervisor at the insurance company. Sometimes escalating the issue can expedite the process.

Prepare for Appeals: If your prior authorization request is denied, be prepared to appeal the decision. Gather any additional information or documentation that might support your case and follow the appeals process outlined by your insurance company.

Please know that you are worth the effort of getting prior authorization. Keep pushing to get the help you need, and consider paying out of pocket in the meantime.

Helpful Tips and Hints

Navigating the prior authorization process can be challenging, but there are several strategies you can use to make it smoother and more efficient.

Here are some practical tips and hints to help you through the process.

Mental Health Parity Violation

Understanding Parity Laws: Mental health parity laws require that insurance coverage for mental health and substance abuse (MH/SA) services be comparable to physical health services. This means that if your insurance company imposes stricter prior authorization requirements on mental health services than on other medical services, they might be violating these laws.

Identifying Violations: Pay attention to the requirements your insurance company sets for mental health services. If they seem more stringent than those for physical health services, you might be dealing with a parity violation. Keep detailed records of your interactions with your insurance company, including any additional requirements they impose.

Taking Action: If you suspect a parity violation, you can file a complaint with your state's insurance commissioner or contact organizations like the Parity Implementation Coalition for guidance on how to proceed. Understanding and asserting your rights can help ensure you receive fair treatment.

When to Call Your Insurance Company (and What to Say)

Timing: Knowing when to call your insurance company can make a big difference. Contact them if you haven’t received a decision within the expected timeframe, if you need clarification on what documents are required, or if you receive a denial notice.

Effective Communication: When calling your insurance company, be clear and concise. Here’s a script to help you get started:

When Your Doctor Refuses to Do Prior Authorization

Sometimes, doctors or therapists might be reluctant to handle prior authorization due to the administrative burden it places on their practice or other reasons. This can be frustrating, but it’s important to understand their perspective and seek solutions.

Use these tips and hints to navigate the prior authorization process more effectively and reduce delays in getting the therapy you need.

The Future of Prior Authorization for Therapy

The landscape of healthcare, including mental health services, is constantly evolving.

Here’s a look at some recent changes and potential future developments in the realm of prior authorization for therapy.

Recent Changes

Streamlining Processes: In recent years, there has been a push to streamline the prior authorization process. Some insurance companies are adopting electronic prior authorization (ePA) systems to speed up approvals and reduce administrative burdens. These systems allow for quicker communication and processing times, which can help patients receive necessary care faster.

Policy Adjustments: Various states and regulatory bodies are enacting policies to limit the use of prior authorization, especially for chronic conditions and ongoing therapies. These changes aim to reduce the frequency of required authorizations and make it easier for patients to continue receiving necessary treatments without constant re-approval.

Increased Transparency: There is a growing demand for greater transparency in the prior authorization process. Patients and healthcare providers are calling for clearer guidelines on what documentation is needed and more predictable timelines for approvals. Some insurers are responding by providing more detailed information and updates on the status of authorization requests.

Predictions for 2024 and Beyond

Broader Adoption of ePA: The trend towards electronic prior authorization is expected to continue, with more insurance companies adopting these systems. This shift could lead to faster and more efficient processing of requests, reducing delays in accessing therapy.

Legislative Changes: Ongoing advocacy efforts may result in further legislative changes aimed at simplifying the prior authorization process. This could include limits on the use of prior authorization for certain types of therapy, faster mandatory response times from insurers, and standardized forms and procedures across different insurance companies.

Integration with EHRs: Another anticipated development is the integration of prior authorization processes with electronic health records (EHRs). This integration would allow healthcare providers to submit and track prior authorization requests directly through their EHR systems, streamlining workflows and reducing administrative burden.

Patient-Centric Approaches: There is a growing emphasis on patient-centered care, which could influence how prior authorization is handled. Future changes might include more personalized authorization processes that consider individual patient needs and circumstances, rather than relying solely on standardized criteria.

Advocacy and Policy Changes

Ongoing Efforts: Advocacy groups and professional organizations are actively working to improve the prior authorization process. They are pushing for reforms that reduce unnecessary barriers to care and ensure that patients receive timely and appropriate treatments.

How You Can Help: Patients and caregivers can play a role in these efforts by staying informed about their rights and participating in advocacy activities. This might include joining local or national advocacy groups, contacting legislators to support relevant bills, or sharing personal experiences to highlight the impact of current prior authorization practices.

Keeping an eye on these trends and potential changes can help you stay informed and prepared for the future of prior authorization in therapy.


Navigating the prior authorization process for therapy can be complex and sometimes frustrating, but understanding the key aspects can help you manage it more effectively. Here are the three most important takeaways from this guide:

Understanding the Basics: Prior authorization is a process used by insurance companies to approve the necessity and appropriateness of a therapy before covering it. This step helps control costs, ensure quality care, and prevent fraud.

Active Participation: Both healthcare providers and patients play crucial roles in the prior authorization process. Being proactive, staying organized, and communicating effectively with your providers and insurance company can help speed up approvals and address any issues.

Future Developments: The landscape of prior authorization is evolving, with trends towards electronic processing, increased transparency, and legislative changes aimed at simplifying the process and reducing delays.

By keeping these points in mind, you can better navigate the prior authorization process and ensure you receive the mental health support you need.

Lastly, if you’re looking for affordable therapy, check if you have out-of-network benefits. If you do, Thrizer can help you avoid insurance hassles by taking claims off your plate. That way, you can focus on therapy and feeling better, not reimbursements.


This blog post is provided for informational purposes only and is not intended as legal, business, medical, or insurance advice. Laws relating to health insurance and coverage are complex, and their application can vary widely depending on individual circumstances and state laws. Similarly, decisions regarding mental health care should be made with the guidance of qualified health care providers. We strongly recommend consulting with a qualified attorney or legal advisor, insurance representative, and/or medical professional to discuss your specific situation and how the laws apply to you or your situation.


About the Author
Brandon Grill

Brandon Grill is a mental health copywriter and marketer based in Las Vegas, NV. He loves helping mental health professionals build fulfilling businesses. You can find Brandon going on a walk with his adorable nephews.