How COVID Has Transformed Mental Healthcare

By Justin Gaines on December 16, 2020
Illustrated person waving from a telehealth call

Much has changed since March of 2020, when COVID-19 swept through our lives and altered everything we know and do. One of the biggest changes was the fast and furious migration to mental health care delivered through telehealth platforms. This change has led to a revolution in the way care, specifically mental healthcare, is delivered.

There are four major ways in which the pandemic has transformed the mental health field for the good: 

1. Patients now have easy access to care from the comfort of their home

Previously, each time a patient was going to your office for a session; now all they need to do is get on their computer. Additionally, you are also able to perform this service from your ideal location and deliver care to a broader array of patients than you might have before. This includes patients within your city and surrounding areas, your state, or perhaps even in another state. This ease of delivery greatly benefits both the patient and the provider. 

Insurance companies also know this. Just recently a senior executive at a Blue Cross Blue Shield plan in a large state remarked to a group of behavioral health providers that, “We are committed to telehealth as a mode of health care delivery both during the pandemic and beyond.” At another BCBS plan in Tennessee, the insurer has already announced that they have instituted a policy change making telehealth expansion permanent. There is now support at all levels of government, State and Federal, as well as in Congress, supporting the permanency of this expansion. 

2. Mental health care, delivered in an effective way via telehealth, can lead to significant cost-savings 

When people are chronically ill, have pre-existing conditions, or are in a state where medical attention is required along with behavioral health, data shows that spending on behavioral health care can lead to cost-savings in the future. Think of all your patients requiring standard medical attentionwhether it is for an illness, condition, or something worse—more often than not, their mental health is a major part of their treatment. 

At an investors conference (pre-COVID), I listened to a panel of leading healthcare investors and executives speak about the benefits of behavioral health. One panelist, from an insurance company, remarked that $1 spent on mental healthcare can save potentially $3$5 down the road on medical care. The healthcare industry in our country is a trillion-dollar business, so if we extrapolate these estimated numbers, the cumulative cost-savings from the services you offer can be in the billions. 

3. Telehealth was already being used in certain circumstances, but the pandemic has accelerated the transition

Prior to COVID, certain insurers were allowing telehealth services. Cigna and Aetna are two companies in particular that had telehealth-friendly policies for mental health. Even Medicare allowed the service, though it paid less than an office visit. 

Now, seven months later, telehealth has become the norm. For practices we work with, billing volume has increased, and practices and providers are busier. There are some practices and providers that have transitioned to telehealth entirely, offering 100% of their services over user-friendly platforms like TherapyNotes™. I would estimate that the average practice is doing around 50% of their visits via a telehealth medium. 

4. Providers are eager to get credentialed and breakaway from group practices; insurers are offering the contracts for participation

The pandemic has motivated many people who were thinking of starting their own practice to take the leap. This entrepreneurial spirit, which is within all of us, has been activated now more than ever. The ability to work from home and manage your caseload presents an attractive alternative for providers looking to start their own practices. 

Insurers have not stood in the way. Over the last 5 months, I have seen more opportunities for credentialing than in the last 34 years. Some insurers, like Medicare, have completely accelerated their credentialing process to the point where approvals can be obtained in a week! This was unheard of just one year ago! Other insurers, like Cigna and Optum, have shown the ability to move quickly if your CAQH profile is perfect, so keep that profile updated if you are looking to credential.

There is no guarantee that telehealth will remain a covered mental health service when the public health emergency ends. Now is a great time to make sure that your voice is heard to help ensure that telehealth is here to stay. You can get involved with national organizations such as NASW or the APA, or work within your communities. A unified voice can go a long way! 

No matter what, telehealth is the new norm for mental health. As time goes by, the amount we have learned from the past seven months will only help to benefit all aspects of mental health and insurance, including billing, credentialing, and so much more. After these several months in the pandemic, we can confidently say that the transition to telehealth has been overwhelmingly positive for the mental health field. 

* The content of this post is intended to serve as general advice and information. It is not to be taken as legal advice and may not account for all rules and regulations in every jurisdiction. For legal advice, please contact an attorney.

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