Aetna Behavioral President Says Holistic, Collaborative Care Key to Company’s Future

The new behavioral health pilot from CVS Health (NYSE: CVS) focused on collaborative care is indicative of where the pharmacy giant is headed in the future, according to Cara McNulty, president of behavioral health and the Employee Assistance Program at Aetna.

“You’ll continue to see us advancing our mental health efforts, right alongside with our physical health efforts, and you’ll see them hand-in-hand,” McNulty recently told Behavioral Health Business. “You’ll see us continue to work on collaborative care [and] interesting, … unique partnerships because our goal is to take the confusion out of the system and to meet people where they’re at in those moments that matter across their journey to better health.”

It’s all part of the holistic approach to health care that CVS, which owns Aetna, is leaning into, McNulty said. The company’s new behavioral health pilot is just the most recent example.


CVS first announced the pilot in its annual Health Trends Report earlier this year. It puts clinical social workers in several of the company’s HealthHUBs, which specialize in care concierge services. There, the social workers provide mental health assessments, referrals, counseling and personalized care plans for patients.

“I have been working on this initiative with my team for over two years, and we brought it to life in order to … democratize access [to mental health care],” McNulty said. “The pandemic just put it on overdrive.”

Simply put, the goal of the pilot is to make it easier for people to access behavioral health care.


It does that by removing the guesswork patients face along the way, such as trying to figure out where they should go for treatment and what level of clinician they need to see. With the pilot, answering those questions is as easy as visiting a CVS HealthHUB or MinuteClinic, McNulty said. 

Patients can access the pilot by coming in and asking to see a social worker, or they can be directed there by another CVS health care worker, such as a clinician or pharmacist.

“You could be at the MinuteClinic … [with] a sinus infection, and we’ve given you a mental health screening,” McNulty said. “That nurse practitioner can say, ‘Hey, you know what? Your assessment is showing that it looks like you could have some depression issues. Would you like to talk to a licensed clinical social worker? We can set you up right here.’” 

If the patient decides to proceed, a social worker will help that person process the assessment, which social workers can also conduct themselves. From there, the LCSW comes up with a personalized care plan, which can include anything from another follow up with them to a referral to a higher level of care.

“Right now, we see, on average, people seeing our licensed clinical social workers about … two and a half times, and many of the issues then are resolved,” McNulty said.

For those patients who need additional assistance, though, social workers can help them review their benefit options, navigate to the proper resources and address their social determinants of health.

Partnership possibilities

Currently, patients can access mental health services at MinuteClinics in 15 HealthHUB locations around Houston, Philadelphia and Tampa. Plus, the company is expanding the pilot to 34 locations in spring 2021, CVS told BHB. 

In those communities, the company is forming formal partnerships with primary care and behavioral health care providers to make its holistic approach possible.

On the primary care side, doctors can refer patients to CVS for therapy and follow up care — and because the model is payer agnostic, they can accept any patient. Meanwhile, CVS can refer patients with higher acuity needs to its behavioral health partners.

“We’re building these two-way partnerships, connecting medical records, establishing coordinated care … and building this out so that we take the navigation and that noise out of the system for the individual patient,” McNulty said.

She went on to explain the importance of that partnership aspect, saying that the LCSWs used in the pilot aren’t meant to replace anyone. Instead, the goal is to collaborate with other providers so that every clinician is operating at the top of their license and better able to tackle the behavioral health supply-demand mismatch.

“In the mental health ecosystem, there is a backlog,” McNulty said. “But a lot of that is because we’re not getting people to the right places, and they’re having to try to navigate and figure this out. … This is working in a collaborative care model so that we are partnering with practitioners who get to do what they do best, we’re doing what we do best and the patient wins.”

Currently, the pilot is only available in-person, but it’s “rapidly building” a similar virtual offering, too. Eventually, that offering will be available everywhere that the program is live, CVS said. 

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