Like most behavioral health providers, AnswersNow had its business turned upside down last year when the coronavirus hit the U.S. Unlike most other organizations, though, the autism services company turned the turmoil into an opportunity to revamp its business model — which it’s currently working to expand nationwide, with the help of insurers and potentially even other providers.
“[Our business] came to a screeching halt, then accelerated well past where we were, ” Jeff Beck, co-founder of AnswersNow, told Behavioral Health Business.
Based in Richmond, Virginia, AnswersNow is a virtual autism services provider. It offers one-on-one tele-applied behavioral analysis (ABA) therapy, as well as personalized virtual training and text-based support for parents. The company is currently serving between 50 and 100 families across the globe, according to Beck.
However, that wasn’t always the case.
Despite AnswersNow’s recent spike in business, the organization itself pre-dates the coronavirus. It’s origin story goes back about five year, to when Beck, a licensed clinical social worker, was employed by a large nonprofit in the Richmond area, where he met his co-founder Adam Dreyfus.
Dreyfus, who is now the Chief Science Officer at AnswersNow, worked for the nonprofit’s autism school. One day, the pair got to talking about a common complaint they heard from the parents of children with autism: They wanted more support to help their kids continue to progress at home.
“The genesis of AnswerNow was to provide text-based services to these parents,” Beck said. “So we went after a few of our colleagues — master’s level and PhD-level BCBAs — and asked them if they would join a Slack group.”
From there, Beck and Dreyfus invited parents to join the group for a small fee. In return, those parents could access the BCBAs and receive real-time, text-based support whenever and wherever they needed it.
Within the first couple months, the group had produced its first clinical-level outcome, helping an adolescent with autism overcome his fear of toilets that flush automatically.
“The BCBA was able to give mom some specific tactics … to help desensitize her son to bathroom time, especially these toilets,” Beck said. “Within a couple of weeks, he was no longer afraid of them.”
Over the next four years, the company continued to scale. Then, in 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic hit, causing Beck and Dreyfus to question how else they could help families struggling to support their loved ones with autism.
As a result, AnswersNow decided to expand its offerings to include virtual ABA services for those with autism, as well as personal coaching for parents. The company quickly worked to get in-network with insurers in its home state of Virginia to make the services affordable. Plus, it built its own in-house proprietary technology, complete with ABA tools, activities and games, to make sessions as meaningful as possible.
“[Before] 95% of our business was texting parents [with] support from world-class experts, and now that’s maybe 10% of what we do,” Beck said. “Another 20% to 30% is one-on-one parent training over our platform, then the other 40% to 60% is one-on-one ABA with the child.”
AnswersNow is currently only in network with insurers in Virginia, but it’s serving private pay clients across the globe. And by the end of 2021, the goal is to grow the number of BCBAs on its platform from 20 to 100 and to offer in-network services to families across the East Coast.
“We are working on getting in network in a number of new states here in the first few months of 2021,” Beck said. “We know that this problem is not just locally, and there are so many BCBAs out there who are now very interested in providing virtual ABA. … I’d love to [eventually] be able to serve a family in every state.”
While Beck is bullish on the company’s outlook, he’s the first to admit virtual ABA isn’t right for everyone. But it’s better than in-person services for some people — and it’s certainly better than nothing.
Nationwide, there’s a severe shortage of ABA providers, despite the fact that one in 54 children have autism, according to 2016 data reported by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) last year. In fact, 49 states have an insufficient number of ABA providers, according to a study published in Psychiatric Services.
As a result, families are usually met with long wait-lists and few options. AnswersNow provides those people with another resource, with the overall goal being to improve accessibility to autism treatment.
“Let’s find parents who are on a 12-month waitlist,” Beck said. “Let’s find parents who are in a more remote location. Let’s find parents who aren’t able to leave work every day or who don’t want to take their child out of school every day. Or maybe they don’t need 30 hours of ABA — maybe they only need 10. Let’s find those families and fit the service into the needs of their life.”
Beck says virtual care has an important role to play in the future of autism treatment. And for AnswersNow, so does collaboration with other providers, all of whom are trying to solve the same problem: how to get autism treatment services to all the children, adolescents and adults who need them.
“I’m excited about partnership opportunities,” Beck said. “There are some incredible clinic-based and in-home providers across the country … [but] it’s impossible to reach everybody. Waitlists are pervasive, and I think we can help bridge that gap or perhaps provide a step-down plan.”