Health insurers have had to reevaluate and expand digital mental health options in response to a mental health crisis and increased demand for virtual healthcare, both prompted by the COVID-19 pandemic. Firms now need to meet growing expectations for affordable, accessible mental health services.

People say firms need to do more. The most recent Kaiser Family Foundation Health Tracking poll found that 79% of adults say that health insurance companies not covering mental health services the same way they do physical health is a problem for the U.S. The same study also saw 54% of adults saying that strengthening mental health parity laws should be a top priority for the new Congress. Trilliant Health published a 2022 Trends Shaping the Health Economy report, which highlighted that behavioral health demand has grown by 17.2% between Q1 2019 and Q1 2022, and specifically has grown by 24.2% for commercial health insurance users. It is clear that firms must increase their coverage for behavioral health.

Health plan’s digital tools and resources regarding mental health are increasingly important to attract and keep customers. If insurers do not adjust, they risk losing younger generations, who understand the importance of digital technology and mental health alike. Below, we outline three ways that insurers should create and promote tools:

Create new and improve existing digital tools for locating mental health providers and estimating cost for services

Our October 2022 Health Plan Monitor Report includes key findings on how insurers can improve and promote adequate digital mental health services. Many insurers have introduced tools and resources to help members locate mental health providers and schedule virtual therapy appointments. Harvard Pilgrim’s new Behavioral Healthcare Provider Locator, added in January of this year, is a standout example of a tool that makes it easier for members to find appropriate mental health providers. The tool is findable within the firm’s general cost estimator and allows users to find facilities or providers based on area of expertise, types of therapy and services offered, or conditions treated. Humana also added a Behavioral Health tab to their Telemedicine page, featuring a list of reasons for seeking mental healthcare, an explanation on how to find providers, and tips to help prepare for virtual visits.

Resources like these are extremely important because a study done by KFF and CNN found that one in four adults reported that they needed mental health services or medication in the past year and did not get them. Of these, 20% said the reason was that they could not afford it, 13% said they could not find a provider, 7% did not know how to find services and 8% said their insurance would not cover the services. By adding cost estimator and provider locator tools to their sites, health plans can create more equitable access to necessary services and medications.

These three screenshots show provider locator tools from Humana and Harvard Pilgrim
Humana Behavioral Health Page and Harvard Pilgrim Behavioral Health Provider Locator Tool

Streamline the findability of in-house educational materials and resources online

Insurers can also help patients help themselves with digital mental health resources. Many firms have added more educational resources and reorganized their sites to make these resources more findable. Seeking out help for mental health issues can feel overwhelming, especially for first-time patients. Firms should have adequate educational material on the subject, just as they do for common physical health conditions.

  • Aetna added a new public site Mental Health Resources and Support page with in-house resources, including anxiety and depression self-assessments followed by a list of actionable items based on user’s results. The firm also added a new Learn About Mental Health Conditions page.
  • Anthem BCBS added new resources to its Mental Health Guide page and UnitedHealthcare created a public site page to help parents support their children’s mental health.
  • Cigna combined all its mental health resources into a single public site page to increase findability.

Although it is important that most firms added educational resources, they are not beneficial if users cannot locate them. Our Health Plan Monitor Report found that only 29% of firms have their mental health resources centralized in a single location that is findable through the main menu. The stigma around mental health is commonly cited as a reason people do not seek out behavioral health treatment, with 20% of people polled by KFF citing embarrassment or fear as reasons they did not seek necessary mental health treatment. By adding centralized, informative resources on the subject, health plans can make these services more accessible.

These two screenshots show mental health education pages from Aetna and United Healthcare
Aetna and United Healthcare Public Site Mental Health Educational Pages

Partner with and promote third-party vendors specializing in mental well-being

Finally, as the idea of wellness expands beyond physical health to include mental health, mindfulness and stress relief, health plans have begun to partner with third-party self-care and wellness apps to promote overall mental wellbeing. Insurance companies have historically understood the value of partnering with companies who promote healthy eating and exercise, but as the idea of “health” expands, so should firm’s partnerships with third-party vendors.

  • Aetna added a new Mental Health You Can Count On page filled with links to third-party resources including suicide hotlines and links to websites dedicated to mental health education.
  • Independence Blue Cross also recently began promoting Quartet as a third-party tool to locate mental health providers and manage out-of-pocket costs.
  • Harvard Pilgrim added a new page to promote the AbleTo virtual therapy program.

Apps like Headspace, Ginger, and Calm have risen in popularity, with the Global Mental Health Apps Market size expected to grow to $10.2 billion by 2027. Despite these projections, Corporate Insight’s Health Plan Monitor Report found that only 18% of the coverage firms promote Ginger, Learn to Live and AbleTo and 12% of firms promote Sanvello and Talkspace, as additional third-party therapy services. With the usage of wellness apps growing, more firms should look at partnerships with these vendors as an opportunity to provide more digital resources to their customers.

These two screenshots show Independence Blue Cross and Harvard Pilgrim's external mental health links
Independence Blue Cross and Harvard Pilgrim External Mental Health Links

Kaiser Permanente: An industry leader

Kaiser Permanente stands out as an industry leader in all three areas, taking strides over the past year to improve user experience for patients seeking mental health treatment. In 2022, the firm added a new member site Access to Mental Health and Wellness Support page, which houses personalized tools to find mental healthcare and estimate costs. The member site Benefits Summary page includes coverage details for mental healthcare. A stand-out feature of the site is the ability for members to chat with a live representative about their mental health coverage.

This screenshot shows the member benefits summary page from Kaiser Permanente
Kaiser Permanente Member Site Benefits Summary Mental Health Page

Kaiser Permanente’s member site also features interactive tools like an online mental health assessment, links to third-party wellness apps, phone numbers for booking mental health appointments and upcoming appointment details. The firm’s self-assessments on alcohol use, drug use and depression should be an industry standard, providing results as well as support telephone numbers and external site links. Over the past year, Kaiser Permanente has also added many educational resources including an Understanding Mental Health page with FAQs, 24/7 text support from Ginger, a page dedicated to explaining mental care and what to expect at an appointment, and pages on meditation, mindfulness, sleeping, relationships, and managing stress. Kaiser Permanente also promotes three self-care apps—Calm, MyStrength and Ginger—that they partner with.

This screenshot shows Kaiser Permanente's public mental health resources
Kaiser Permanente Public Site Mental Health Resources

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Tess Martin

Tess Martin is an Analyst on CI's healthcare team.