To address rising youth mental health needs, public agencies are partnering with digital behavioral health companies to expand access to support services.
For public entities, including schools and health departments, it’s a way to offer behavioral health access at scale. These public-private partnerships can be mutually beneficial, expanding the reach of digital behavioral health providers by enabling them to serve more clients while meeting public health needs.
“Those agencies, whether it’s Medicaid, a union, or state employee benefit plan, are more aware of the importance of behavioral health as a component to overall health and more willing to, because of the importance of access, work with non-traditional providers,” Jon Gordon, a general partner at HC9 Ventures, told Behavioral Health Business. “An academic medical center cannot deliver therapy in a cost-effective way.”
HC9 Ventures is an investment firm focused on Seed and Series A investments. Its portfolio includes behavioral health companies Forge Health and PsychHub.
Removing the barriers to care
One place where there has been a lot of activity in this type of deal is in treating pediatric populations.
New York City-based tele-mental health company Talkspace (Nasdaq: TALK) has been making waves with its deal recently. In November, the company announced a $26 million deal with the city of New York to provide behavioral health services to all adolescents aged 13 to 17 in the city. Between 400,000 to 500,000 teens will be eligible for the service.
“If you look at why [these deals] are important to the Talkspaces of the world, it is because they are walking into a turnkey immediate population of patients and customers,” Richard Lungen, a general partner at HC9, told BHB. “It’s a very creative way to leverage their assets and collaborate. But it’s still another form of revenue creation.”
Talkspace CEO Dr. John Cohen said that these types of partnerships help remove some of the most significant barriers to care, including the cost of services to patients.
“In terms of the barriers to care, one is financial, who’s going to pay for it, which we took away with this deal. The second is whether insurance will pay or some other entity. So both those issues are at the table because the city is paying,” Cohen said. “All you need to do to qualify is to be between 13 and 17 years and have to have a New York City address. The idea is to include as many people as possible, which is why we didn’t just do the school system because we wanted to ensure that charters and private schools were included.”
While the deal with New York City is focused on the municipality, several other public-private partnerships are sprouting in the school space. Talkspace recently inked a deal with the Baltimore County Public Schools, which gave more than 32,000 students access to free therapy.
Additionally, school-based telehealth provider Hazel Health teamed up with Los Angeles County to expand its district’s behavioral health services to 1.3 million children.
“Providing access to early intervention services, systematically, at this scale has the potential to change the trajectory for students struggling with mental health across L.A. County,” Josh Golomb, CEO at Hazel Health, said in a statement. “This model provides more equitable access to care at an unprecedented rate for students from families who may otherwise not benefit from it and can truly change lives.”
But for these deals to work, behavioral health providers need buy-in from the community they are trying to serve. The first step is making potential clients aware that these services are available.
In the deal between Talkspace and New York City, the former has a thorough public awareness campaign, according to Cohen. This includes looping in schools and publicizing the program on social media and public transportation. Talkspace is also working with the Department of Health, other community, and child welfare agencies to help spread the word.
Part of this public awareness campaign is also letting potential clients know that the program is free to them.
“The number one issue that prevents people from getting health care is money,” Cohen said. “The minute you take that off the table, it changes the dynamic, whether it’s getting a screening mammogram, colonoscopy or any tests. And the data is very clear about finances.”
When designing products, especially for teens, it’s essential to get the end user’s input before rolling out the program.
“From a funding side, what we look for is that the organizations are starting with the end user and really designing with them from the get-go,” Kelsey Noonan, program strategy and investment lead at Pivotal Ventures, told BHB. “If you’re developing a clinical care model that’s meant to be done in schools, you need to talk to educators and kids in those schools to understand what those needs are. I think that there are a lot of assumptions that adults get wrong when we try to design from the outside.”
Founded by Melinda Gates, Pivotal Ventures invests in organizations that accelerate social progress in the U.S. One of the company’s main focuses is on mental health for young people.
One way to design for this population is by creating teen focus groups, Cohen said. This can help providers figure out everything from the most appropriate and relevant questions to ask teens about during intake to what modality is best for teens to receive therapy.
Eventually, teens could spread awareness about the products by word of mouth.
“I think another huge opportunity as far as the barriers that this teen population is facing is stigma,” Dr.Benders-Hadi, chief medical officer of Talkspace, told BHB. “So to be able to utilize student ambassadors and have kids talking to their friends or their family about accessing care, and the outcomes associated with that, I think can go far in continuing to reduce stigma, and give people access to care sooner.”