UnitedHealthcare COO: Investing to Increase Behavioral Health Resources Through Technology and Community

The behavioral health industry had gradually been moving towards telehealth even before the pandemic, but COVID has only accelerated the transition. Many have also called for telehealth to become a permanent part of the post-COVID behavioral health landscape, especially as a way to increase access to those who may otherwise have trouble getting it.

Dirk McMahon says he is among those within the industry who think virtual care can fix the problem of access.

“I used to get a lot of emails that would say, ‘I can’t get access to a behavioral health doctor when I need to,” McMahon, who is the president and COO of the UnitedHealth Group (NYSE: UNH), said last month at a conference held in Boston by the organization HLTH.

The three-day conference brought together leaders across the health care spectrum, with various panels dedicated to the topic of innovation within the industry.


McMahon was among over 300 speakers at the event, and devoted some time on the topic of health care innovation to behavioral care. At one point, he opened up about what he thought were past shortcomings of behavioral health with access. He believed that it has particularly been a problem for young individuals, as it estimated that 1 in 6 children ages 6-17 have a treatable mental health condition.

As McMahon said had he previously heard stories from those with behavioral issues, he also said that he has heard from parents whose children were likewise struggling when it came to access.

“It was particularly bad with respect to kids,” he said. “I’d get emails from parents that said, ‘The only option I have is to go to the ER.’ United had the biggest behavioral health physical network in the country, and it still wasn’t enough.”

In years since, McMahon said that UnitedHealthcare has tried to do its part in helping the industry. One way, he said, has been through a strategic investment that its Optum Ventures unit made in mental health platform AbleTo, which links members to virtual care services. Another strategy was by partnering with the app Sanvello to provide text-based access for users needing help to cope with stress, anxiety and depression.


“Those solutions are great because it provides access,” McMahon remarked. “We’re trying to develop tools for people to improve access and give people the care they need.”

McMahon also said that UnitedHealth’s data collection networks have helped reduce disparities to care for residents in various markets, the result of a community-based initiative called Community Catalyst. As part of the initiative, UnitedHealthcare works with public housing agencies, federally qualified health centers and community-based organizations to identify health care needs of communities that have struggled with adequate access to care.

Community Catalyst analyzes trends in health access in approximately 30 of UnitedHealthcare’s markets. Akron, Ohio was one of those markets McMahon pointed to as an example of the initiative’s work.

Through UnitedHealthcare’s research, McMahon said that the insurer was able to determine that emergency department (ED) visits in Akron were driven significantly by behavioral conditions in disparate communities.

McMahon said that Community Catalyst was able to direct members to professionals and resources at the community-based level that could help them with their immediate concerns, as opposed to them having to go to EDs to get assistance. As a result, McMahon said that ED visits among Akron-area members decreased 10%.

“We brought things to bear like housing, things like hotlines for substance abuse, so that people who call could talk to someone rather than have an emergency department visit,” he said.

McMahon believes that continued innovation and investment is needed by the health care industry overall to increase access to individuals, especially those with behavioral concerns.

“If you look at health equity, I think everybody’s got to chip in,” he said. “I think across the entire health care landscape, there’s a lot of resources being devoted, and rightfully so.”

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