Beacon’s New Hire Brings Lessons Learned from Talkspace, Optum to CMO Position

Beacon Health Options has entered an era of evolution.

For one, it’s under new ownership. Last year, the managed behavioral health care organization — which previously dubbed itself as the nation’s largest independent behavioral health company — was acquired by the insurance giant Anthem (NYSE: ANTM). Halfway into 2021, that integration is well underway. 

At the same time, Beacon’s leadership team is in transition. Currently, it’s on the hunt for a new full-time president, a role former EVP and Northeast Market President Susan Coakley has been holding in an interim capacity since May 2020. Plus, earlier this month, the company added fresh blood to the C-suite with the hiring of Neil Leibowitz, Beacon’s new chief medical officer.


An Optum veteran who most recently served as CMO of Talkspace, Leibowitz is bringing lessons learned from both organizations to the new position, with the goal to ensure that ownership and leadership aren’t the only things leveling up at Beacon Health Options.

In an interview with Behavioral Health Business, Leibowitz said integrating innovation into brick-and-mortar care models is top of mind for him, as well as giving patients more choice in the treatment experience and providers more money for yielding better outcomes.

You can find BHB’s conversation with Leibowitz below, edited for length and clarity.


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BHB: Congratulations on the new position! What made you decide to come to Beacon?

Leibowitz: The pandemic has brought mental health to the forefront in a way that it never has.

And with that, different types of innovation and solutions have started to mature a little bit. When I first came to Talkspace three and a half years ago, telebehavioral was a pretty immature market, and now it’s mature.

That, coupled with Beacon now being part of Anthem, makes this really interesting.

It’s the opportunity to come back to the payer world and think about: How can we evaluate and, in a thoughtful way, put together technology solutions with bricks and mortar to change people’s lives? We finally have the tools to do that.

When I was at Optum several years ago, I felt like I was missing a lot of the things in the toolbox I needed to move that needle forward. It was about doing more of the same things we’ve always done, just better.

Some of that is always going to be there. But now, it becomes about: How do you integrate these innovations as they mature and become ready for primetime? And how can we change the dialogue from one of medical necessity to one that includes wellness?

We still want to make sure people need the care that they’re getting, but it’s a really pivotal shift in the marketplace. It’s no longer just about treating someone who has depression or schizophrenia. Now, it’s about anyone struggling with life, and we have more tools to help them in innovative, different ways — so it becomes mental health on their terms. We’re empowering people to get care the way they want it.

As the newest member of Beacon’s leadership team, which is in transition, what are your priorities in your new role?

It’s twofold. Being part of Anthem is new, so we want to make sure that we integrate well. These things take time.

Then, the second piece, where I’ve spent the last several years of my career, is: How do we put together a strategy that combines virtual with that traditional brick-and-mortar world of care?

Like with all payers, that journey started at Beacon before I came on. But now, we’re thinking about what fits and how we can really build that combined model out over the next three to five years. How does it look different than it does today?

Speaking of virtual care, before joining Beacon, you served as the Chief Medical Officer of Talkspace. What lessons learned from that role are you bringing to your new position?

A lot. One is we have to measure. We need to use things like the PhQ-9 and the GAD-7 and embed them in the technology so we have a baseline and we see how people do.

There’s value to the individual there — and there’s value in understanding whether providers are, in the aggregate, providing great care.

If I am a provider, and I’ve seen 400 people, I now have 400 data points. You can get a pretty good idea of how someone performs when they have 400 patients. And then, if 200 are depression patients, we can see if that person is good at treating depression. Maybe they’re good at depression, but not at post-traumatic stress. We can start to stratify and understand who does what well.

In diabetes, we can track hemoglobin or sugar to understand how we are doing, but it’s much harder with behavioral health. The measurement system is further behind. So how do we start to measure more as a payer and hold the people providing the care to those measures?

I think we’re going to move to a world where the people who have stronger outcomes ultimately get more — meaning payments, whether it’s value-based or bonuses. We’re moving to a world where we know exactly who’s great, and they should be rewarded for that. And we know who’s struggling, and we need to remediate.

The second piece is giving people choice. At Talkspace, patients choose: Do you want to live video? Do you want asynchronous? Within asynchronous, do you want to text your therapist today or do you want to send them a video?

Giving people that choice, which is very counter to what I learned, becomes a really powerful tool.

And then the third thing is, despite all the dialogue around technology, the human connection is really what drives the relationship. While there is a place for pure self-service, like chatbots, it’s smaller.

I look at it as leveraging technology to help clinicians provide the care. That becomes the value.

There’s value in self-service for those people who like to go at their own pace or are comfortable without human intervention, but that’s a small piece of the answer, not the crux of the answer.

People want that individualized, humanistic touch, and that’s something I heard loud and clear from clients and patients who came to Talkspace.

All that said, how big of a role is telebehavioral playing at Beacon now, and what role will it play going forward?

At the height of the pandemic, almost everyone was using telehealth, and it’s still very high.

Going forward, the role is big. It’s gonna look different for different people, but I think, for almost everyone, it should be at least an option for part of their care, whether it’s convenience or preference. Offering people this choice becomes table stakes now.

I think the majority of people will want to set foot in an office sometimes, but have some sort of healthy mix. And that’s great. And there’s going to be a smaller percentage — if I had to guess probably under 20% of people — who say, “I don’t want this.”

This is where questions about broadband and people’s access to technology come in, both due to disparities in income in race, ethnicity, geography and other factors. So we definitely have work to do as a society.

I think we’re going to solve those things, probably at the congressional level. I’ve done some lobbying over time, and my sense is there’s a lot of appetite now. And once we do that, telehealth becomes part of just about everyone’s care — to the extent that they want it.

Part of your job at Beason is developing and implementing clinical strategies and programs. Do you have anything new and exciting in mind?

We will be implementing programs that use technology to provide behavioral health services on the members’ terms. Essentially we’ll look at it three ways and determine what and how the member likes to interact: technology-only, self-service and human-assisted.

Beacon is launching an innovative program designed to address the basic needs of an employer’s workforce to on-site resource coordinators focused on things like housing, food, transportation and other core resources. Through this program, Beacon will help employers identify and remove obstacles to creating a safer and more productive work environment for their employees. The need for this type of solution will only increase as employers transition their workforce back into the workplace. And we look forward to scaling this offering across our markets in the future after going live with a major national retailer in the second quarter.

We are also working on implementing a differentiated program to address individuals at high risk of suicide.

Very exciting. Another interesting initiative Beacon is involved with is its ongoing relationship with Walmart (NYSE: WMT), in which it provides behavioral health services at select locations as part of the retail giant’s health care push. How’s that going? Any new color or partnership expansions to report?

The relationship with Walmart Health is going well. We are excited by the ongoing partnership and currently have partnered with Walmart Health in Illinois, Arkansas and Georgia.

This model supports Beacon’s goal of increasing access to behavioral health care services. Communities across the country need more access to mental and behavioral health services, as there are not enough places where people can get the help they need. This really hones in on our discussion about the strategy of giving people choice of how and where they wish to access their care. By locating within a Walmart store, we provide another opportunity to touch peoples’ lives in a way that offers convenience as well, especially since 90% of Americans live within 10 miles of a Walmart store.

The services we offer differ at each location, but generally include individual, couples, family and group counseling — and depending on location can start from 6 years old and up. Common issues treated include stress and anxiety management, depression and mood disorders, relationship issues, life changes and trauma.

Changing gears a little bit and going back to what you said about lobbying, the pandemic seems to have more payers and policymakers paying attention to behavioral health than ever before. How do you think that translates in terms of impact for the industry at large?

First, funding will increase, and there’s more focus on parity now than there ever was. That’s important.

I also think there’s finally attention on some problems that have really limited growth over time. For example, this interstate licensure restriction: If I have a New York license and an office in New York, someone can come from New Jersey, and I’m allowed to see them. But I’m technically not allowed to see that same person via telehealth if they’re in New Jersey and I’m in New York.

These are relics of an earlier time when state boards were protecting people from the bad actors, when there was a lack of information and ability to track. These have become legacy problems that limit access both in pure availability and in patient choice.

COVID has put a focus on that, and we saw many states temporarily drop restrictions, allowing out-of-state clinicians to come in and provide care.

My experience at a Talkspace was that it went really well. Everyone was happy. I’m sure there’s someone who is unhappy, but overall we weren’t seeing problems. So I’m optimistic that issue will become an area of focus, and we’ll see some changes in the next two or three years.

On the topic of payers focusing more on behavioral health, recently, we’ve seen insurers buying managed behavioral health organizations. Anthem bought Beacon, Centene acquired Magellan, ect. Some people worry these consolidations could be bad for the industry, given the relationship big name insurers have historically had with behavioral health. What’s your take on that?

Anthem chose to make Beacon part of the diversified business group but keep it as an independent.

To me, that was very appealing because, some of that concern, I get it. It’ll be there. But we’re going to operate as an independent company and do behavioral health the way we did it, but better, leveraging Anthem as a partner. That’s additive.

That was a major draw for me. I’d have to think long and hard if this opportunity would have been as appealing if Beacon was embedded. That can be difficult.

There are always challenges with any model. But from a more aggregate view, whether we like it or not, we’ve moved to a world of consolidation in every arena in every area. This has just become the norm.

While people may be concerned, we’ve created an environment where — because healthcare is so complex, it’s so regulatory and it’s such a challenge — being able to leverage the resources of large organizations starts to make sense. Ten years ago, it was much easier to be a smaller player. Now, it’s gotten much more complex.

That presents both an opportunity for the larger companies to grow and add significant expertise, and for the smaller companies to leverage resources from a larger player.

And what bold predictions do you have for Beacon and/or the larger behavioral health space in the next couple years?

COVID has led to a level of investing in technology that makes me very optimistic we’re going to see amazing solutions continue to emerge.

I feel great about the Beacon-Anthem team and our ability to recognize those companies, whether we can provide them to our members or have a deeper level of partnership with them.

We’re going to see some amazing innovation, and Beacon and Anthem are going to come to be on the forefront of that.

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