Inside CVS Health’s Behavioral Health Strategy

CVS Health (NYSE: CVS) continues to double down on behavioral health.

In 2022, it announced a series of new initiatives and digital partnerships aimed at improving mental health.

For example, in August CVS announced a partnership with telehealth giant Amwell to launch a new virtual primary care service that includes on-demand mental health services. The service will roll out to fully insured Aetna members, self-insured plan sponsors and CVS Caremark customers in 2023.

Telehealth visits at CVS also continued to grow. In 2021, CVS reported 10 million virtual mental health visits.

CVS is also actively involved in mental health prevention efforts. CVS has set an ambitious goal of reducing suicide attempts by Aetna members by 20 percent by 2025. It has already made significant strides in reducing suicide attempts.

The Woonsocket, Rhode Island-based health group, which includes pharmacies, pharmacy benefit managers and payer subsidiaries, is now looking to focus on adolescent behavioral health in the future.

Behavioral Health Business sat down with Cara McNulty, president of behavioral and mental health at CVS Health, to discuss where the company plans to work on behavioral health.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

what: Heading into 2023, what is CVS’ top priority for mental health?

McNulty: As a health service, we are committed to treating people’s mental and physical health together. Your head is connected to your heart, your heart is connected to your head, that’s our premise.

We will continue to push the premise and meet the people they are on their mental health journey. That means we’re not waiting for people to fall into crisis. We’re thinking, talking, and acting on people’s mental health and physical health, in the same way that comes up continuously.

The third part of the equation is really driving prevention and intervention. So, about a year ago, we set the bold goal of reducing suicide attempts by 20% by 2025 for the members we serve through our insurance arm, Aetna. In one year, we reduced that number in the 18+ population by 17.5%.The unfortunate side is that we continue to see teenage mental health and wellbeing, especially from age 10 to 24 [declining]. Second leading cause of death is suicide [for this age range].

We’re even pushing our goals further to focus on specific teens.

What are the lessons learned from 2022 when it comes to behavioral health work?

Mental health and mental health happens to all of us. Let’s come out and talk about mental health and wellbeing because we need to make it accessible and acceptable and we need to have an open dialogue if we think people will come to us for help.

This is especially important for people whose voices have quieted down or who feel unsafe to seek help. You’ll see that we really continue to follow these conversations.

I talked about the focus on our youth work, which includes specific youth outreach programs that impact youth and their families. We’re building some unique partnerships with a company called Vita Health and Oui Therapeutics, specifically around teen suicide prevention. It really focuses on interventions that support youth prevention and intervention.

In our adult campaign to reduce suicide attempts, we use something called the Caring Connection Program. We do a lot of things when someone is hospitalized for trying. One of the things we do is send a simple, caring contact to let the person know they are important and valuable.

We are also deploying it to our teenage population. We really took the lessons we learned, we revised, we got it right.

How do you see value-based care shaping behavioral health in the future?

We’re using value-based care and value-based care structures to really get access, availability, provider outcomes, and diversity and inclusion.

As we work with critical systems and providers, we’re looking for value-based opportunities to help us with access because we can see in the data where we have less resources.

We deploy usage analytics to illustrate where we have gaps, not only in terms of access but also in how we ensure availability. How do we continue to favor and reward providers as they deliver quality care, drive superior outcomes, and meet diversity and inclusion needs?

We need to continue to advance the development of the supplier ecosystem. It’s everything from race and ethnicity to age and gender and expertise.

We know it’s not just psychiatrists and psychologists that we need to continue to push people into these practices. But really low-level care, licensed clinical social workers and coaches that can help people achieve physical and mental health.

Do you think digital continues to be a disruptor for behavioral health? How does CVS see digital integration into its larger behavioral health strategy?

We see it as a game changer. Before the pandemic, I would say that phone and teletherapy support utilization was about 1%. Over the years, entering this pandemic, we served approximately 55% of our members through telehealth.

We use chat therapy. We’ve seen it grow exponentially. In between, whether it’s a telemedicine mental health visit or an in-person visit, the ability to have chat therapy with your provider as a check-in is a great way to get in touch.

We recently conducted a poll where we looked at consumer perceptions of virtual versus in-person visits. 41% said they like being virtual because they don’t have to leave their home or workplace.

Another thing we’ve seen is that all ages and races are finding the use of digital health and telemental health services to be effective.

How do you see future mental health equity efforts shaping behavioral health?

Parity takes the conversation from mental health being as important as physical health to really incorporating into legislation the framework of policy systems and environmental change that everyone must follow. This can’t just be rhetoric, it’s really an action where mental health and physical health must be equal.

As parity continues to evolve, and it continues to evolve, companies like CVS are pouring out how can we continue to push parity legislation forward? How can we improve?

We see equality as a safety net and tool for all healthcare providers and companies to drive outcomes, the best we can do for our communities, families and individuals within our communities.

Is the partnership part of CVS’ long-term strategy around building behavioral health products? Are there any examples?

Strategic partnerships are definitely part of our strategic and mental health ecosystem. But it’s not just about any partner. We are working with partners to help us fill gaps in care and improve quality and measurable quality.

This is not just a general open call for partners.As I mentioned before, we’re building partnerships with companies and vendors that help us fill in the gaps, whether it’s Vita and Oui Therapeutics to see how we continue to address adolescent mental health and wellbeing, or Big Health’s [digital therapeutics] sleep.

We have so many partnerships with the nonprofits we help who help us ensure that the communities where we live, work, worship and play have the right care and support. This may be through efforts like our CVS Health Wellness District, where we bring the community together.its [also] Investments, these are all about improving access to health and providing screening.

There is a lot of discussion about behavioral health prevention. How do you feel about mental health prevention efforts?

I am reminded of all our articles about what we should do to improve our physical health. We should sleep, eat well, exercise, and we should have positive relationships. You don’t usually hear people talk about the work you do to support your mental health.

Your mental health needs the same support and nurture as your physical health. It could be some of the same techniques, for example, that exercise is good for endorphins and positive emotions. There are also things like going outside and taking a break from social media if it makes you miserable or even depressed.

It also seeks support early by talking with a mental health coach and learning how to calm yourself down when you become anxious, or what to do when you start to feel blue. Even higher levels of support. Maybe you have a serious mental illness. So, how do you manage this mental illness? Not just medicine, but the tools and support system around you to help you always look your best.

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