Telehealth doctor talking to a patient

Has the Pandemic Changed Behavioral Health Care Delivery Forever?

One year ago, about 100 patients per week were accessing mental health care virtually through Pine Rest Christian Mental Health Services. That number jumped dramatically over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic, with more than 6,000 weekly telehealth visits occurring today.

“I don’t think we’re ever going back to where we were with telehealth,” said Dr. Mark Eastburg, president and CEO at Pine Rest. “This has launched us forward in the acceptance of virtual visits.”

Therapy through a secure digital platform is one of many new norms that have emerged because of the pandemic and it’s one that likely isn’t going away.

“(Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan) members and people across the state are recognizing the value of receiving care in this way,” explained Dr. Amy McKenzie, associate chief medical officer, Provider Engagement at Blue Cross. “We do believe that this is here to stay, particularly for behavioral health.”

Telehealth proving popular for mental health care

The growth of telehealth was driven by an immediate goal to avoid exposure to COVID-19, but trends indicate most consumers are interested in continuing to use virtual services moving forward.

In the first six months of 2019, about 7,500 Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan members accessed behavioral health care services virtually. That number jumped more than 3,000% in the same timeframe in 2020, with 234,747 members virtually receiving mental health and substance use disorder treatment through secure online platforms from January through June. Numbers of virtual visits have dropped about 14% since their peak in April 2020 but remain well above what they were prior to the pandemic. Blue Cross worked quickly to expand virtual options for members, including autism services and substance use disorder treatment.

Nearly 90% of Blue Cross members polled said they’ve been satisfied with receiving care virtually and about 50% would like to continue seeing their therapists and other health professionals via telehealth, said Lukasz Paszek, director, Care Delivery at Blue Cross. He said the preference is somewhat generational, with younger members expressing more interest in expanded virtual care options than older members.

With an existing shortage of behavioral health providers pre-pandemic, virtual visits can expand access to mental health services, McKenzie said. For patients driving long distances to receive care or who might have to arrange childcare to find time to make appointments, telehealth might also make it more likely that patients will be able to stick with their therapy and treatment goals.

“That’s incredibly more convenient for many patients,” Eastburg said.

Virtual or in-person, the need for behavioral health care remains

Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic:

  • 45% of adults in the U.S. reported that their mental health has been negatively impacted due to worry and stress over the virus
  • 13% of adults reported new or increased substance use
  • The prevalence of depressive disorder was approximately four times higher than reported in the second quarter of 2019

Depression, anxiety and loneliness are natural responses to extraordinary stress, Eastburg said.

“Those are normal reactions to what life has been like over the last year,” he said.

After an initial drop in people seeking in-person care following orders to stay home last March, Pine Rest saw their highest inpatient case counts in the last 25 years over the summer of 2020. He thinks people who might have gone without care at first, attempting to “gut it out”, might have then needed more acute care.

“That can build and build and that can reach a crisis stage,” he said. “I think that probably explains the uptick in inpatient care.”

McKenzie said Blue Cross is working to improve members’ willingness to seek care, while also improving access to high-quality care and improving outcomes by incentivizing the integration of behavioral health care into primary care settings.

“The pandemic forced the health care delivery system to rapidly develop virtual solutions,” McKenzie said. “Telehealth will remain an important option to ensure our members receive high quality, safe and convenient care for behavioral health.”

Dr. McKenzie and other presenters discussed health care trends in West Michigan, including behavioral health trends, during recent Health Check virtual presentations. Watch the video here or read the full report, developed collaboratively with Grand Valley State University and other partners.   

Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan and Blue Care Network can help members find an in-network mental health professional by calling behavioral health access lines listed below:

PPO: Behavioral Health Access Line | 1-800-762-2382

  • A free and confidential resource that’s just a call away when you need immediate support. Behavioral health professionals answer, 24/7.

HMO: Behavioral Health Access Line | 1-800-482-5982

  • Connect with a behavioral health clinician if you need help finding a mental health or substance use provider.
  • Behavioral health clinicians are available for routine assistance from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday through Friday. For urgent concerns after hours, clinicians are also available 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Crisis Assistance:

  • If you feel that your condition is an emergency that’s not life threatening, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline for support at 1-800-273-8255.
  • If your situation requires immediate emergency help to prevent death or serious harm to yourself or others, please seek help at the nearest emergency room or call 911.

Learn more about mental health and options you have as a member to seek help at bcbsm.com/mentalhealth.   

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Photo credit: Getty Images

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