BCBS of Massachusetts expands network of mental health providers

By Eileen Weber
August 4th, 2023
Greg Harris, MD, MPH, DFAPA, is senior medical director for mental health at Blue Cross Blue Shield.

What if your insurance company told you that you could get an appointment with a mental healthcare provider in just a few days, not several months?

Since the beginning of the pandemic, the need for mental health care has escalated and Blue Cross Blue Shield (BCBS) of Massachusetts is doing something about it. The company, which currently has the largest mental health network in the state, announced an increase in spending for mental healthcare. In the past five years, they have grown that network by 50 percentage to include more than 18,000 clinicians, no small feat considering the nationwide shortage of mental health care workers.

In a May statement, Andrew Dreyfus, president and CEO of Blue Cross Blue Shield, said, “We’re taking action to support our members at a time when the need for mental health services has never been greater. Research by our Foundation shows that many people who need mental health care struggle to find it, so we’re working hard to expand our network and help members find effective, affordable, convenient care when they need it.”

According to the National Institutes of Health, rates of anxiety, depression, and substance use disorder have increased since early 2020. And based on a 2021 study the organization cites, nearly half of Americans surveyed reported symptoms of anxiety or depression with about 10 percent stating their mental health needs were not being met.

Data from the Kaiser Family Foundation collected in February showed 30.8 percent of adults in Massachusetts reported symptoms of anxiety and/or depressive disorder compared to 32.3 percent of adults in the rest of the country.

“Prior to the pandemic, we’d already been seeing year over year increases in mental health spending due to a variety of factors,” said Greg Harris, MD, MPH, DFAPA, senior medical director for mental health at BCBS, in an email exchange.

“Rates of anxiety, depression, and substance use disorder have increased significantly since the beginning of the COVID emergency, prompting the demand for mental health services and in turn, spending, to rise.”

BCBS reportedly spent $610 million in 2019 on mental health services and that figure skyrocketed to $1.3 billion in 2022.

BCBS partnered with companies such as Headway, Alma, Talkiatry, Thriveworks, Refresh Mental Health, and Valera Health to provide a range of in-person and virtual therapy that can see patients within a two- to five-day range as well as manage medications.

Headway has been working on its own expansion with other companies, Blue Cross Blue Shield being one of them. In a released statement from Empire Blue Cross Blue Shield in New York where Headway is based, company CEO Andrew Adams noted that he was a patient who had difficulty finding in-network mental healthcare when he moved to New York years ago.

“I understand first-hand the need for better access to care,” he said. “This is just the beginning of our rapid expansion nationwide as we work to build a new mental healthcare system everyone can access.”

As a subspecialty, BCBS of Massachusetts is also working with Cortica, who works with autistic children and their families and Eleanor Health, which specifically targets substance use disorder.

Other specialty providers they are working with include And Still We Rise, Aware Recovery Care, DynamiCare, Forge Health, and NOCD.

Harris highlighted Brightline, which provides services to kids from 18 months to 17 years old who have specific mental healthcare needs. He said Brightline provides a broad range of care to families via video with licensed therapists, psychologists, psychiatrists, and psychiatric nurse practitioners, and speech therapists.

“Our members have access to an array of virtual mental health options through Brightline,” he said, “which provides services to children who need speech therapy or are experiencing mental health issues like depression, anxiety, and ADHD.”

Last November, BCBS released a statement of an increase in partnerships with organizations that target an array of mental health conditions and promote culturally affirming practices all via telehealth. This latest expansion is simply adding to how the company has already been growing.

“The majority of these partners offer in-person and virtual care options,” Harris pointed out. “Telehealth can ease administrative barriers, help clinicians see more patients and reduce overall costs. In order to maintain access to care for our members and to help ease demand on the over-burdened health care community, we reimburse telehealth sessions performed by mental health specialists at the same rate as in-person visits.”

Massachusetts is not alone in the struggle to meet the needs of the average American. Mental Health America noted in its 2022 data report that on average, 19.86 percent of U.S. adults are experiencing a mental illness with 4.91 percent experiencing severe mental illness.

The state prevalence of mental illness ranges from a low of 16.37 percent in New Jersey to a maximum of 26.86 percent in Utah. According to its findings, the New England states hover at about 18 percent to 22 percent.

Noting the demand for mental healthcare had never been higher, Harris said, “Our priority is not just to add more clinicians to our network, but support our members and guide them to the care and resources that they need regardless of where they are at in their mental health journey.”

One Response to BCBS of Massachusetts expands network of mental health providers

  • September 22nd, 2023 at 7:19 pm Barbara Mordini posted:

    Great! BCBSMA has also decreased reimbursements to existing MH providers. They are now the lowest payer amongst the major ins. co’s. This does not increase access or reflect a positive valuation of MH providers. I haven’t checked yet, but I bet Andrew Dreyfus did not get a pay cut. Last I heard, BCBSMA was paying community member to serve on their (nonprofit) board. the more things change…

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