One of the nation's biggest insurers wants to make mental-health care available to more people. Here's how Cigna plans to tap Ginger's network of coaches to do it.

One of the nation's biggest insurers wants to make mental-health care available to more people. Here's how Cigna plans to tap Ginger's network of coaches to do it.

April 28, 2021
  • Cigna is partnering with mental-health care startup Ginger to offer its services to Cigna members.
  • Patients will have access to Ginger’s network of mental health coaches and therapists.
  • Ginger believes its coaches could help alleviate the pandemic-induced demand placed on licensed therapists.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

Americans are demanding mental-health care after more than a year of anxiety and isolation, and insurance companies are starting to listen.

Although mental-health startups have boomed during the pandemic, larger hospitals and insurance companies have been slower to adapt to the skyrocketing demand.

That started to change Wednesday when health insurance giant Cigna, which has 14 million members, announced it was partnering with mental health startup Ginger to offer virtual mental-health care coverage.

Ginger offers virtual mental-health care through its vast network of mental-health coaches, which are trained professionals just shy of the official therapist certification. Many coaches have completed a master’s degree in psychology from top schools like Duke or Columbia, Ginger CEO Russ Glass told Insider. Patients can text their coach, who works with them to develop a treatment plan for experiences like anxiety and depression. If the patients start experiencing acute symptoms, which ticked up dramatically during the pandemic, they can also speak to a therapist or psychiatrist in addition to their coach.

Ginger’s model helps address the growing chasm between supply and demand in mental-health care. The pandemic pushed more people to consider therapy than ever, but the number of licensed therapists accepting new patients plummeted during the crisis. Patients waited, on average, between six and eight weeks to first meet with a new therapist, according to Glass.

With coaches, patients can expect a response within 60 seconds, he said. That mismatch has created an entirely new market for lower tiers of care for patients that don’t necessarily need to see a licensed therapist.

“The way it works today, people don’t get access to care until their illness is acute,” Glass told Insider. “What Cigna has recognized is that if we can get people access to help earlier through behavioral health coaching, we can prevent them from getting serious.”

How it works

Depending on their plan, Cigna’s members will be able to download the Ginger app, which offers access to mental health coaches and therapists on demand, with just a copay or other small cost.

Compared to traditional talk therapy, which is not typically covered by insurance or accepted by therapists, the costs will be minimal for patients, Cigna chief medical officer for behavioral health Dr. Doug Nemecek told Insider.

The coaches are comparable to a gym coach, Glass explained. They meet with patients, develop a plan to achieve the patients’ goals, and work together to apply tools and strategies to execute the plan.

Glass compared therapists and psychiatrists to physical therapists or surgeons who might treat an athlete’s knee injury due to the highly specialized nature of care and acuity of injury.

“You go to a physical therapist to fix the knee problem before the coach can start working with you. In mental health, it’s the same,” Glass said. “You might go to a therapist to work on a few things before stepping down to the coach level.”

Glass maintained that roughly 80% of Ginger’s members’ needs are met through coaches instead of having to go to a higher tier of care with a therapist or psychiatrist.

“What we see is this weird paradox where some people don’t get enough care or any care, but a lot of people get far too much care,” Glass said. “They go into therapy forever mode.”

Virtual mental health care is here to stay

Cigna members were demanding virtual mental health coverage, Nemecek said. Although Cigna had been eyeing mental-health care and virtual care for years, it took the pandemic to accelerate that strategy.

Although its partnership with Ginger its its latest foray into virtual mental health, Cigna has bet big on other parts of virtual care. Cigna’s Evernorth division in February said it’s buying virtual care company MDLive for an undisclosed amount.

“It put a strain on the supply of supports that were available out there,” Nemecek said of the rapid increase in mental-health care demand during the pandemic. “Virtual care and digital support allows us to expand that access and allows that access to be more immediate.”

The change is here to stay, Nemecek said. He predicted that the convenience of virtual care, combined with Ginger’s coaching model, will sustain the public’s interest in accessing mental-health care.

“It’s an opportunity for us as an industry to provide better and broader mental health support,” Nemecek said.

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