Company tries providing mental health care at Walmart

In mental health care, is something better than nothing? Some experts and an intermediary between providers and insurance companies disagree.

Beacon Health Options is trying the idea at a store in Carrollton, Texas, as a way to bring mental health care to underserved areas.

“We chose a retail setting for the first practice because it offers the convenience of a local neighborhood location that is close by and easy to get to, and our evening hours accommodate our patients’ schedules,” company CEO Russell C. Petrella said in a press release.

The Walmart clinic is intended for people with “milder” forms of mental illness — “anxiety, depression, grief, relationship issues, and the stresses of everyday living.” Serious mental illnesses will still be referred to other professionals in Beacon’s network, the Boston Globe says.

“People don’t know how to find a behavioral health or mental health professional,” Petrella tells the Globe. “People don’t know where to go and what to do.”

Treat access to mental health care like other illnesses? Check. Expand availability so you don’t have to wait months for help? Check. Make health care more available to those least likely to get it? Check.

Those are all goals that people have said they want.

So what’s the problem?

Beacon, which manages mental health care for 40 million people, has a reputation of being one of those companies that puts roadblock after roadblock in front of people needing mental health care, the Globe says, which is why some experts aren’t ready to buy into the whole idea. It’s a privately-held company, part of the Bain Capital stable.

“If Beacon were serious about expanding access to mental health services, it would focus on doing a better job in its current lines of business,” Vic DiGravio, CEO of the Massachusetts trade group of treatment providers, tells the paper. “What Beacon is really good at is limiting access to treatment. They’re not so good at promoting access to treatment.”

The plan to open retail clinics is “treating the symptom, not the real problem,” said Ian A. Lang, executive director of the Brookline Center for Community Mental Health. “If you truly want to move the system forward, you’ve got to pay providers.”

A lot of providers don’t take insurance because the reimbursement rates from the companies are too low. The Beacon CEO says the company is working to address the problem but his assessment leaves room for the skeptics.

“We could drastically increase rates and I’m not sure we could get the kind of services we need,” he said, suggesting providers are too slow and unwilling to adopt newer treatment methods.

“Our whole goal is to give people services that work,” he said.

Even if people got services that didn’t, that would be more than many are getting now.

  • QuietBlue

    I’m not seeing the potential downside here either. At worst, it won’t do anything; at best, it will help people. Even helping a small number of people seems like it would be an improvement over the status quo. DiGravio’s comments just seem like those of an industry gatekeeper.

    • 212944

      “At worst, it won’t do anything; at best, it will help people.”

      At worst, it won’t do anything … AND give the illusion to those outside of it that there is something.

      Meanwhile, people with needs are not only not getting access to treatment but also may find their concerns about lack of access dismissed because Beacon provides access (when, in fact, it does not).

      • QuietBlue

        Re: your last sentence…how is that a change from the way things are now?

        • 212944

          Because people unfamiliar with what is actually happening may think it is being it is being addressed and solved, including community leaders and politicians.

  • Barton

    It seems like a good start. I agree with DiGravio’s comments and others about issues but what they relate is no different than any other issues with our insurance companies as investment vehicle system (UHC, I’m looking at you). There is an inherent conflict of interest with any medical service provider that also has investors/shareholders because profits will always come before people.

  • Angry Jonny

    Any port in a storm, I suppose.

  • Gary F

    It’s a start. There will probably be a learning curve. Some failures and some success. Hopefully enough success that other firms will venture in this area.

    I wish them the best, its truly needed.

  • The Resistance

    Only in America would mental health care be available for sale at the retail outlet that is the largest gun seller in the country.

    As much as I’d like to believe that this is a way to make mental health care more accessible, I think this is just a way for Beacon and its private equity partners to extract more money from the health care system.

    And Walmart will surely make space for this venture next to the pharmacy counter of every store. Ka-ching!

    This story shows exactly why we need to get for-profit private corporations out of our health care system.

  • MarkUp

    If people get services that work and Beacon can cut expenses, then it’s a win-win.
    If people don’t and Beacon cuts expenses anyways, well it’s still a win for Beacon, and a win that other insurers will follow suit under the guise of keeping premiums down, cutting access to the services that do work.

    To answer your opening question “In mental health care, is something better than nothing?” I would say yes, especially if “something” undercuts “something better.”

  • Erik Petersen

    Its not venture capital. You used the right term second time there, “private equity”,

  • Andy K.

    Mental health professional, here (LMFT). Rather than investing in new lines of business (because that’s what this effort really is), Beacon needs to focus on complying with the mental health parity act and pay their current providers appropriately. The line about providers being hesitant to trying new treatment methods is such an absurdity that it’s not even worth addressing. I’ve invested $10k over the past two years in continuing education, learning new “treatment methods”. I can’t even get a contract with BCBS, Health Partners, UBH, or Medica as a small practice owner, more or less negotiate any reimbursement rates.