Six Healthcare Execs On How To Close The Nation’s Mental Health Care Gap

Table of Contents Q: What Kinds Of Behavioral Health Innovations Or Partnerships Are Impressing You…

Behavioral health is having a moment — and rightfully so. Four in 10 adults in the U.S. reported having symptoms of anxiety or depression during our pandemic year, up from one in ten adults who reported these symptoms from January to June 2019. Pair the pent-up demand for behavioral and mental health services with the shortage of affordable, available resources, and what our country has is an incredible gap that requires action from all players to close. 

For its part, the government just announced that it will be allocating $3 billion and $14.2 million in American Rescue Plan funding, through The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), to improve patient access to mental healthcare for adults and teens, respectively. This action comes on the heels of the newly-introduced Creating Opportunities Now for Necessary and Effective Care Technologies (CONNECT) for Health Act of 2021, a bill aimed at addressing the post-pandemic Medicare telehealth landscape by permanently extending some of the flexibilities afforded as part of the country’s Covid-19 public health emergency (PHE) declaration.  

For their part, employers, providers and health plans remain focused on finding ways to more effectively and affordably bring behavioral health services into the fold. From rolling out new, collaborative care models, increasingly relying on virtual channels, forging novel industry partnerships, and implementing tech-driven solutions to improve care access and engagement, there is no shortage of levers to pull — and they are indeed being pulled. 

Below, six behavioral health leaders — Christine Brocato, system VP, strategic innovation, CommonSpirit; Ken Fasola, CEO, Magellan Health; Shana Hoffman, CEO, New Directions Behavioral Health; Mark Talluto, VP of Strategy & Analytics, Blue Cross Blue Shield Association;  Cara McNulty, President, Aetna Behavioral Health; Brett Hart, Chief Behavioral Health Officer, Centene Corporation — share their perspectives on the burgeoning sector, what makes them optimistic about the future, and what steps their organizations are taking to better serve the behavioral health needs of the population. They also reflect on the importance of convening and learning from others like at the Going Digital: Behavioral Health Tech summit, which will be held virtually this year on June 3. 


Q: What Kinds Of Behavioral Health Innovations Or Partnerships Are Impressing You The Most?


Christine (Fernandez) Brocato, System VP, Strategic Innovation, CommonSpirit : “We listened to our primary care providers, who told us repeatedly that they saw huge needs for patients with depression, anxiety, and opioid use disorder, but they didn’t have enough resources in the community to refer them to. And when our physicians do refer patients to mental health providers or facilities in the community, often times there is a long wait to have an appointment. We realized we needed to find partners that could be easy to use, for both our patients and providers, and also offer consistent, predictable access so our staff had confidence in using the service.

I’ve been impressed by behavioral health innovations that are truly convenient to our patients and can be customized according to our patients’ specific needs. CommonSpirit’s partnerships with Concert Health and BrightHeart Health are good examples. In addition to providing a low friction experience to patients, these partners have also ensured that staff can easily refer patients to the service in a way that works with their existing workflow.

With Concert Health, once a patient is identified with having depression or anxiety during their office visit, the PCP provides a warm hand-off to a Concert therapist who typically follows up with the patient within 24 hours of the visit. With BrightHeart Health, patients struggling with opioids addiction issues in our Emergency Rooms can choose to be onboarded into the BrightHeart program before leaving our facility. Finally, our partners have figured out the right economic model to make these programs sustainable for patients. Ease of use for patients, seamless for clinicians and a sustainable economic model— that’s a triple win that distinguishes these models.”

Ken Fasola, CEO, Magellan Health 

“We have seen unprecedented investment in behavioral health by private equity funds – $2.4 billion in venture capital investment flowed to U.S.-based start-ups in the behavioral health space last year alone. We are impressed with the acceleration of behavioral health innovations and partnerships which has significantly grown over the past year due to the pandemic and increasing consumer demand for self-care/app solutions and access to access to care in behavioral health.

The result has been an enormous library of digital point solutions, but it’s critically important that these solutions are paired with the right levels of clinical support. In fact, the best tools increase access to care AND support seamless, real-time relationships between patients and their providers. With this exciting advent of new technology and digital tools, combined with a collaborative care approach, we are moving more meaningfully across the care continuum with a focus on managing whole person health—life, mind and body.”

Shana Hoffman, CEO, New Directions Behavioral Health

“Covid-19 forced the healthcare industry to get creative about how care can and should be delivered. Since the beginning of the pandemic, virtual treatment mechanisms have gained a lot of traction with services that haven’t used technology in this way before, such as treating substance use disorders. For example, online support groups and other virtual treatment options are proving to be successful and a great alternative for people who struggled to fit in-person treatment into their lives.

This emerging hybrid model of service combining technology with clinical service seems to create impressive clinical outcomes for people. I would expect this combination of technology with clinical service to be a hallmark of the treatment of behavioral health conditions in the future.”

Mark Talluto, VP of Strategy & Analytics, Blue Cross Blue Shield Association 

“I’m most inspired by companies that are taking a holistic approach to behavioral healthcare to treat the whole person. One example: BCBS Kansas City launched Mindful by Blue KC in July 2020, a behavioral health initiative to reduce the stigma around behavioral health while making care more accessible and affordable. The program offers access to Mindful Advocates—licensed clinicians available 24/7—as well as digital solutions and well-being resources, including therapy visits, to address mental health issues.”

Cara McNulty, President, Aetna Behavioral Health 

“Covid-19 helped shine a light on mental health, and allowed people to talk more openly about their mental wellbeing. Innovations and partnerships that have helped to increase access to care and connect people to care have been truly impressive in meeting this moment. We know from our recent research that four in 10 American adults need help navigating the complex mental care system.

On our end, we launched a program called Here 4 U, which offers free, online, peer support sessions to the public. We held several sessions in May for women as part of Mental Health Month and Women’s Health Month and the slots filled fast! Over 200 participants used the opportunity to talk about their emotions with their peers and receive additional support.

We are also continuing to expand onsite access to licensed clinical social workers through CVS Health HealthHUB locations, which provide counseling and navigation services.”


Are You Seeing Any Data That Gives You Reason For Optimism?


Christine Brocato, System VP, Strategic Innovation, CommonSpirit : “We have several months under our belt with Concert Health’s collaborative health model, and the response from patients has been really positive. Patients are using the program when it’s offered to them and our data is showing that 80% of patients using the program have never received mental health services before, likely indicating that 1) we’re reaching more patients in which mental health services were not accessible before and 2) that people are experiencing mental health issues for the first time as a result of a chaotic and tragic year of Covid.

In addition, we see that people are getting better through this program. Our team tracks how many patients experience at least a 50% reduction in their symptoms within 90 days. Right now we’re tracking 62% of those patients. That is a dramatic reduction in suffering, and it’s happening quicker than many patients and physicians thought was possible.”

Ken Fasola, CEO, Magellan Health : “Historically, behavioral health providers have focused on what happens in a session. We are now moving beyond a single point of contact to understand and address what is happening in between sessions and we’re doing this using data and leveraging technology. This is an exciting shift for the behavioral health field. More specifically, Magellan Health is working with our partners, NeuroFlow and Arine—market leaders in technology—on the whole patient journey so we know where there is elevated risk when we have patients who aren’t sitting face to face in their provider’s office.

We’re using analytics to help us identify risk, and we’re intentional about how we design our outreach. With the technologies available to us to leverage data in real-time—machine learning, automation, robotics, remote monitoring techniques and geolocation—we can be a vastly more powerful part of the support system for providers and patients.”

Brett Hart, Chief Behavioral Health Officer, Centene Corporation: “Not surprisingly, Centene has experienced a significant increase in behavioral health utilization throughout this pandemic as people have struggled to cope with loss of loved ones, fear, economic challenges, life disruption, and social isolation. During the height of the pandemic, our claims data showed that nine of the top ten diagnoses treated in a telehealth context were behavioral health conditions, and half of the top ten categories of providers that were delivering telehealth services were behavioral health specialists. This gives me optimism regarding how quickly the overall system was able to adapt and enable remote behavioral health care with no warning or preparation time.

From my perspective, this shows a nimbleness in all aspects of the behavioral health care system, and an openness to creativity and innovation with the kind of momentum that might have taken many years in a different environment.”

Shanna Hoffman, CEO, New Directions Behavioral Health: “Mental health is in the spotlight right now. As it becomes more mainstream, the stigma is slowly fading and more people are exploring their care options. At New Directions we are seeing an increase in calls and need for support and education on the different types of services, levels of care and how to navigate it all.

During the past year, we have seen over a 100% increase in members who called in, were screened and identified as ‘at risk,’ and needed to be routed to a clinician for further assessment and connection to care.

As news headlines continue to shine a light on the importance of mental health, we have an incredible opportunity to make a difference in the lives of so many that need help but are navigating behavioral health for the first time.”

Mark Talluto, VP of Strategy & Analytics, Blue Cross Blue Shield Association: “As part of our Covid-19 National Pulse Survey in 2020, we saw:

  • 75% of people with behavioral health conditions were continuing therapy services during Covid-19.
  • An increase in positive behavior changes, particularly among Gen Z, including: 51% started exercising more; 75% started talking on the phone or video chat more with friends and/or family; 73% spent more time with family.

The State of the Nation’s Mental Health report, commissioned by Anthem, Inc., parent company to Anthem Blue Cross, also found:

  • Nine out of 10 healthcare professionals surveyed said that Covid-19 has made them more aware of the mental health conditions their patients are experiencing.
  • 70% of healthcare professionals said their patients have been more willing to proactively bring up mental health concerns during appointments.”

Cara McNulty, President, Aetna Behavioral Health : “We are excited that people shifted to telemedicine to access mental health care during the pandemic, and saw the benefits! Telemedicine has proven to be particularly effective for mental health care as it allows for greater convenience in connecting with a provider, and it can be a good option for those who are apprehensive about receiving this kind of care in person.

In fact, from April 2020 through December 2020, more than 60% of our outpatient mental health visits were conducted via telemedicine, up from just 1% in 2019.

Early this year we conducted research to better understand how COVID-19 impacted mental health, including attitudes toward telemedicine. We found that two-thirds of all adults agree telemedicine will continue to rise, and 49% of adults are considering telemedicine now and as a part of their medical care even after the pandemic is over, suggesting telemedicine will become more and more popular with those seeking non-emergency medical and mental health services.”


Q. What are you hoping to learn about at the Going Digital: Behavioral Health Tech conference or why did you decide to participate in the conference?


Christine Brocato, System VP, Strategic Innovation, CommonSpirit : “I think this conference is a fantastic way to learn about new trends and emerging technologies within behavioral health. There are so many good solutions emerging that didn’t exist even 5 years ago. It’s an exciting time!

We’re seeing solutions that are more convenient and tailored to patients. There’s something for everyone—-whether that’s mental health apps for communities of color, LGBTQ or targeted to youth. The diversity in solutions is ushering in more inclusiveness and less one-size-fits all. And this growing sense of inclusiveness with mental health has potential to chip away at the stigma that’s been historically associated with getting care, hopefully resulting in greater usage by the people who need it the most.”

Ken Fasola, CEO, Magellan Health : “The Going Digital: Behavioral Health Tech conference brings together an impressive group of leaders during a critically important time in our industry. We are thankful for this platform as organizations, like Magellan Health, can come together and learn more about amazing new technologies and transformational work taking place to address the need for improved quality outcomes and reduced cost of care.

This is an inflection point in our history as we all work tirelessly to reduce stigma around behavioral health, develop new digital interventions and focus on augmenting the important work that clinicians do on behalf of the patients they treat. Complementing digital solutions with clinical expertise to guide individuals to the most appropriate solutions and treatment remains important particularly with the growing challenges that are not soon behind us.”

Brett Hart, Chief Behavioral Health Officer, Centene Corporation: “We place tremendous time, energy, and resources into ensuring individuals have easy access to the highest quality behavioral health care in any place at any point in time. This is challenging in general, but especially so for certain populations such as those in rural areas or under-served communities. The Going Digital: Behavioral Health Tech conference puts these concerns in the spotlight and provides a forum for collaboration among innovators, investors, providers, and insurers to come together and chart a course to better behavioral health care for all. I’m honored to participate in this important conversation.” 

Shanna Hoffman, CEO, New Directions Behavioral Health: “The healthcare industry is constantly evolving, and we have seen unprecedented and rapid changes over the past year. We’re witnessing – and actively contributing to – an era of mental health technology and innovation. There is so much diversity of thought that we’re bringing together to tackle the challenges and opportunities in mental health. I’m thrilled to join other passionate leaders in behavioral health to share ideas and truly transform the way care is managed and delivered.” 

Mark Talluto, VP of Strategy & Analytics, Blue Cross Blue Shield Association: “While Covid-19 exposed some serious shortcomings in our healthcare system, it also provided some areas rich with opportunity – one of which is greater dialogue around behavioral health. Venues like these can help turn dialogue into action in new and innovative ways. Together, we can enable a broader, more holistic approach to health to treat the whole person.”

Cara McNulty, President, Aetna Behavioral Health : “The demand for mental health care is accelerating fast. It is incredibly important that we develop the needed resources, and connect those in need to care. Digital resources are a crucial part of the solution, and these events and conferences are a great way to not only highlight the services we need, but also learn more about new services that we can utilize for our customers and members.”


About Going Digital: Behavioral Health Tech: The Going Digital: Behavioral Health Tech summit is the largest conference focused on virtual behavioral health access and innovation.  The summit convenes health plans, employers and benefits professionals, health systems, providers, investors, and startups to share best practices for deploying effective, scalable behavioral health solutions to all individuals in light of COVID-19 and beyond. Founded and hosted by Solomé Tibebu, the virtual forum will showcase the changing technological, reimbursement, and policy landscape for telehealth and other virtual behavioral health solutions. Join us with thousands of other healthcare professionals working to make mental health and substance use care more accessible for all. All proceeds of the event will support BEAM (Black Emotional Mental Health and Wellness Collective).  Visit on Twitter and LinkedIn.