Behavioral health network strategies designed to help expand access to care

A shortage of mental health providers is challenging employers to find new approaches to help meet the growing demand.

The demand for mental health services is outpacing the availability of providers.1

While an estimated 51.5M — or 1 in 5 — people are living with mental illness,2 there are only approximately 1.3M providers who offer behavioral health services in the U.S.3 What’s more, 6 in 10 providers reported that they are unable to accept new patients.1

Diversity in provider networks is also lacking. Studies show that when patients share the same race or ethnicity of their providers, everything from communication to health outcomes are improved.4 Yet about 8 in 10 psychologists are white, which may be a contributing factor to people of color receiving a lower quality of care or deterring them from seeking care at all.5

To help address these challenges, employers should focus on strategies designed to give employees access to a broader and more diverse provider network while also working to reduce barriers to care and drive engagement.

“When we think about our behavioral health network strategy, we are building in ways to improve quality, provide greater value and drive affordability.”

— Stacie Grassmuck, Director, Behavioral Health Product and Innovation, UnitedHealthcare Employer & Individual

Selecting a network with a broad and diverse set of providers and care options

Ideally, a provider network provides different methods to help employees access the care they need, in the way they prefer — from in-person care to virtual health or self-help options. To that end, UnitedHealthcare has worked to expand its behavioral health networks.

This past year alone, UnitedHealthcare has added 52K+ behavioral health and EAP providers to its network. Within that network, 41K+ providers have virtual visit capabilities.6 UnitedHealthcare continues to focus on building its provider network in the virtual mental health space.

Mental health conditions impact all populations but disproportionately affect women, racial minority groups and young adults.7

That’s why UnitedHealthcare is continually working to:

  • Recruit and provide scholarships to diverse providers — both in terms of their demographic background and what conditions they specialize in
  • Train providers in delivering care that is characterized by cultural humility
  • Add ethnicity, gender and language into provider search criteria

“Data shows more licensed professionals in all 50 states, but some areas of the country lack certain types of mental health professionals,” says Dr. Rhonda Randall, chief medical officer for UnitedHealthcare Employer & Individual. “We’re always looking for ways to expand and diversify our network while supporting providers who are feeling the strain of increased demand.”

The use of virtual health for mental health services spiked from 39.4% in 2019 to 88.1% in 2022 and is predicted to continue being a popular platform going forward.8 In fact, 2 in 5 surveyed adults used virtual health care in 2022, and nearly 4 in 5 said it made it easier for them to get the care they needed.9

“Today, we see that many members prefer the convenience of virtual appointments. Meeting online eliminates commuting and wait times in the office. And by removing those barriers, members can get the care they need when they need it,” explains Trevor Porath, vice president of behavioral health solutions for UnitedHealthcare Employer & Individual.

Given that more than half of U.S. counties have no available psychiatrists,10 virtual offerings have a critical role to play in helping to improve access to care. Virtual health options — including 1-on-1 counseling appointments, online chat capabilities and mental health apps — also provide a level of privacy that may help reduce the stigma around seeking mental health support. This is especially true among older populations, who are less likely to seek out behavioral health support compared to younger generations.9

Offering specialty behavioral health care benefits

In some cases, an employee may need help with a higher severity or more complex condition that requires facility-based care, such as substance use, addiction or an eating disorder.

47.8M Americans live with a substance use disorder, and millions more misuse alcohol or prescription medications each year — putting them at risk for developing an addiction to these substances.11

Specialized solutions may help support employees and their dependents who have these more complex behavioral health conditions. The UnitedHealthcare Opioid Management Program, for instance, is designed to provide pharmacy and medication management services and medication-assisted treatment with therapy for opioid addiction.

If an employee’s dependent is struggling with a complex behavioral health condition, the parent or guardian’s mental health and workplace productivity may be affected — causing them to require support as well. In this situation, programs like the Family Support Program through UnitedHealthcare may help simplify navigation of the health care system and improve clinical outcomes for families dealing with complex conditions like autism spectrum, substance use or bipolar disorder.

UnitedHealthcare has 59K+ network providers who specialize in substance use disorders,6 and nearly 10,800 medication-assisted treatment locations, with 97% of members living within 20 miles of a provider.12

Providing preventive mental health support to help avoid crises

It’s important to note that not every mental health need is severe or debilitating to the point of needing intervention from an in-person behavioral health care provider. That’s why employers should look to make resources available to their employees that allow them to proactively manage their mental health before they’re in crisis.

UnitedHealthcare behavioral health care continuum

Clinical knowledge and data analytics allow UnitedHealthcare to better understand the members it serves through the lens of a member segmentation model. The severity levels of a person’s needs help UnitedHealthcare identify how best to serve them.

These population categories are then used to build capabilities along the continuum, which enable UnitedHealthcare to create evidence-based solutions.

This can take shape through the form of education, self-care tools, telephonic emotional support or coaching. For example, UnitedHealthcare offers members access to self-guided educational content and resources, mindfulness and resilience support through its top-rated self-care app, with an in-the-moment emotional support help line, access to cognitive behavioral therapy techniques and 1-on-1 in-app coaching with licensed therapists.

“Historically, a member’s first step into behavioral health has been through a therapist or psychiatrist. What we found is that not all members need that level of care,” Grassmuck says. “We’ve brought forth more options like a self-help app that can help get at contributing factors of depression and stress, and behavioral health coaching that can help mitigate triggers — to hopefully prevent a member from reaching the point of needing in-person care.”

Prioritizing and promoting preventive mental health care can eliminate the barriers that come with provider shortages while still giving employees and their families the support they may need — without having to wait weeks or months to see the next available behavioral health care provider.

5 ways to help employees find the behavioral health care they may need

As behavioral health care needs continue to increase, strategies designed to help members access care are becoming essential to employer benefits.

“At UnitedHealthcare, we’re intent on helping guide members to care by supporting employers with strategies that work to make it easier for their employees to get the behavioral health care they need," says Dr. Rhonda Randall, chief medical officer for UnitedHealthcare Employer & Individual.

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