Cigna Doubles Down on Commitment to Virtual Behavioral Health Post-Pandemic

The health insurance giant Cigna (NYSE:CI) is once again doubling down on its commitment to virtual behavioral health care post-pandemic.

Like most insurers, Cigna watched its virtual behavioral health claims spike amid the COVID-19 emergency. And Stuart Lustig, Cigna’s senior medical director for behavioral health, told Behavioral Health Business there’s no going back now.

“It is really, really dramatic, and it was really, really fast,” Lustig said. “Before the pandemic started, we knew from looking at our claims data that about 1% to 1.5% of claimants were accessing treatment virtually — so a pretty small number — and then that really skyrocketed up to 60% … by June or so of 2020.”

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That 60% figure has held steady as the pandemic has progressed, according to Cigna data on the first-year impact of COVID-19. Lustig said the findings have “enormous implications” for how people will continue to access behavioral health care into the future.

“If we think about the impediments to getting psychiatric care … when you need it, it’s often access … [and] resources. Sometimes it’s stigma,” Lustig said. “And the ability to simply dial into your therapist or even to have an … instant messaging session with your therapist, for example, on chat is really a game changer.”

Lustig said he predicts virtual behavioral health care claims will stay up at around 60% even post-pandemic. The insurer has built out a number of capabilities and partnerships with companies such as Talkspace, Ginger and Meru Health in an effort to help make that possible and give beneficiaries as many access points as possible.

Plus, Cigna’s health services business, Evernorth, announced in February that it was acquiring MDLive, which is one of the largest telehealth companies in the U.S. It delivers a number of virtual services including therapy and psychiatry through its network of certified clinicians. 

Terms of the deal were not announced.

“The MDLive acquisition is really part of this pivot towards helping people get in for virtual treatment, as are some of the other vendors [like Talkspace],” Lustig said. “These are all part of the same approach of helping people to get in more quickly and more effectively to get the treatment that they need. This is a road that we were on before, but I’d say COVID has certainly accelerated our efforts.”

Lustig’s comments come after Eva Borden, managing director for behavioral health at Cigna, was equally bullish on telebehavioral in an interview with BHB last year. She said that the insurer will continue to accelerate beneficiaries’ access to virtual care even after the coronavirus ends.

“When I think about the future of virtual care at Cigna, it will be a very multi-faceted approach,” she told BHB in October. “It’s access to virtual care and video. It’s access to being able to engage digitally, whether on an app or text therapy or other forms. I anticipate that we will continue to advance in these spaces.”

Lustig said that the multi-faceted approach will include adding more and more digital therapeutics to Cigna’s Evernorth, which currently includes companies such as Quit Genius, a digital clinic that treats addiction.

“It’s always a question of matching the right digital therapeutic to the right to the right patient and also using our predictive analytic capabilities to really predict who is going to need what services ideally even before they know they need them,” he said. “That’s where we have the most value with the vast amounts of data that we have, so I think that’s the future of healthcare.”

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