As Mental Health Crisis Grows, So Do Health Insurer Behavioral Health Provider Networks

As Mental Health Crisis Grows, So Do Health Insurer Behavioral Health Provider Networks

As the U.S. mental health crisis worsens, the nation’s largest health insurance companies are expanding their behavioral health provider networks.

UnitedHealth Group, parent of the nation’s largest health insurer, UnitedHealthcare, said this week at its annual investor conference that it has expanded its already massive network of behavioral healthcare providers by 25% to 375,000 from about 300,000 in 2020.

“The demand for effective and evidenced based behavioral health has never been greater,” said Dr. Wyatt Decker, chief executive officer at UnitedHealth Group’s Optum Health unit. “Over the last several years, we have taken an intentional approach to increase access by growing our network and aligning our behavioral health services to better support the millions of people we serve.”

These behavioral healthcare providers can include psychiatrists, psychologists, therapists, social workers and specialized nurses, according to the health insurance companies.

“We guide people to the right care for their unique needs across the full range of an individual’s behavioral needs, from education to digital self-help tools, medication management to higher levels of behavioral health care both in person or virtually, including critical incident response services,” UnitedHealth said in a report it released as part of its 2023 business outlook meeting this week. “We serve over 42 million people through a network of 375,000 behavioral care professionals. In addition, Optum’s growing employed team consists of nearly 4,500 care providers supporting millions of patient sessions per year.”

Other health insurers, too, are growing their behavioral health networks as they meld medical and mental health benefits in insurance plans they sell. It’s part of the strategy engaged by all health insurers to treat the “whole person.”

Cigna, for example, has more than 250,000 “in-network” behavioral health providers and continues to grow its network “aggressively,” the company said. In particular, Cigna has grown “network of providers specializing in treating teenagers by 34% and those who specialize in cultural and ethnic issues by 20%,” the company said.

“With the urgent and growing demand for mental health care, we’ve doubled the size of our network over the past five years to give our customers quicker and more convenient access to clinicians who cater to their specialized needs, ages and languages,” said Eva Borden, president of behavioral care at Cigna’s Evernorth healthcare services business. “Whether you are parent with a child showing signs of ADHD, a teen experiencing suicidal thoughts or an adult suffering from addiction, our customers can meet with highly-specialized clinicians in-person, via phone, app or a combination and can receive care quicker than ever before.”