Beacon, Optum Execs Predict Closer Payer-Provider Relationships Post-Pandemic

While telehealth technology has long been available, COVID-19 is responsible for finally forcing its widespread adoption. Behavioral health providers and payers seem to agree: There’s no turning back now.

While virtual care is likely here to stay, it’s unclear what role it will play in the behavioral health industry going forward. However, stakeholders predict improved payer-provider relationships will be an important piece of the puzzle.

“I do expect that we will continue to actively use telehealth and get smarter about it, too,” Susan Coakley, interim president at Beacon Health Options, said. “I think our next evolution will be to work really closely with our provider partners to measure outcomes to make sure we’re using [telehealth] as effectively as we possibly can for our constituents.”


Coakley made those comments late last month during the 2020 Payer’s Behavioral Health Management and Policy virtual event. The conference was hosted by the Association for Behavioral Health and Wellness (ABHW) — national voice for payers that manage behavioral health insurance benefits — and World Congress — a global provider of health care conferences.

Amid COVID-19, Coakley said Beacon has seen especially high rates of outpatient utilization. While inpatient numbers are down, Beacon is seeing much longer lengths of stay and increased readmission rates there. Meanwhile, telehealth is also booming, she said, with utilization up from a single digit rate this time last year, to a 75% increase today.

Optum Behavioral Health is seeing the “very same thing,” CEO Rebecca Schechter, who was also a panelist, said.


“The only variation I would add is, as we looked at the surge of and the use of telehealth, particularly in outpatient, we also saw an increase in the first-time users,” Schechte said.

Specifically, 56% of Optum’s first-time users who had never received behavioral health care services before March have since received behavioral health care via telehealth. More generally on the telehealth front, Optum has seen telehealth claims increase from a single digit rate to one that today still exceeds 50%.

Schechter called the past eight months an inflection point for the behavioral health industry. And she doesn’t just mean in the virtual delivery of services: Going forward, Schechter predicts payers and providers will work together more closely to maximize the effectiveness and delivery of behavioral health services.   

“There are walls of money entering the provider ecosystem, with plenty of solutions and point solutions being developed,” Schechter said. “Thinking through how we wire that system more intelligently, how we incent players in that system more intelligently and [how we] connect the providers with the payers is an area that we’re looking to innovate and move into aggressively,”

As such, Schechter sees potential for payers to help clients and members curate, connect and navigate point solutions, with a bevy of potential opportunities and implications from there.  

“It is going to have implications in terms of how the payments work and how we might get to a situation where we align incentives across payers and providers and potentially include some of the medical and behavioral benefits, all of which I think is still to be done,” she said. “I do think that’ll be an area of quite a bit of innovation coming forward.”

Companies featured in this article: