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Vermonters’ options for online mental health care expand

Instead of waiting six months to a year for their child to see a provider, or driving an hour or more each way for an office visit, parents with BlueCross as their insurer can now access an online option. While primary care providers often fill the gap, sometimes more specialized help is needed.

Vermont’s largest private health insurer has partnered with a virtual mental health care company to offer additional therapy and psychiatric care options.

BlueCross BlueShield of Vermont announced on Tuesday, Oct. 3, that its policyholders can now start booking virtual appointments with providers through Valera Health, based in Brooklyn. N.Y. The online-only company offers care to children ages 6 and up, as well as adults.

Berlin-based BCBS Vermont serves around 225,000 Vermonters. MVP Health, a New York-based nonprofit that insures around 70,000 Vermonters, already offers access to Valera Health providers, as does Cigna, Humana and UnitedHealthcare.

BCBS Vermont was already working with Amwell, a telehealth company in Boston, to supplement access to therapy and psychiatry for adults, according to Tom Weigel, chief medical officer for the nonprofit insurer. But he called Valera’s offerings for children and teenagers “a big game changer.”

“We don’t have enough adult mental health providers locally, but we certainly have more (of them) than we do child mental health providers,” Weigel said.

Instead of waiting six months to a year for their child to see a provider, or driving an hour or more each way for an office visit, parents with BlueCross as their insurer can now access an online option, he said. While primary care providers often fill the gap, sometimes more specialized help is needed.

Valera Health can support a broad range of mental health conditions, including anxiety, OCD and depression, according to both Weigel and the company’s website. Valera also has providers that can address the most challenging mental illnesses to treat, such as bipolar disorder and schizophrenia.

Copayments for care are similar for both virtual and in-person mental health care and will vary for different types of insurance plans. For those bought through the Vermont Health Connect marketplace, several initial visits are covered before a deductible or copayment requirement begins.

Care provided online by Valera providers could be used as a short-term solution after a crisis until in-person care is available, Weigel said. Though, particularly in rural parts of the state, he said, “I think this could be the first and final solution for a lot of people.”

Although healthcare by telephone or video is still not for everyone, patients nationwide and in Vermont have become more comfortable with receiving healthcare virtually — largely because the practice was encouraged to reduce the spread of the COVID-19 virus during the global pandemic, Weigel said. At the same time, state and federal rules changed to allow both public and private insurers to set up systems to pay for care provided that way.

Most importantly, though, companies’ technology is improving, and providers are more able to provide skilled virtual care, both for behavioral and mental health and in specialties where in-person access is limited, said Weigel.

“We’ve realized that the quality is there for a lot of these services to have them offered virtually,” he said.

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