10:43 AM

NJ’s Largest Insurer Just Made It Much Easier to Get Mental Health Help



Horizon BCBSNJ and AbleTo partner to offer members free online therapy sessions.

By Thomas Vincz, Public Relations Manager

From the moment the COVID-19 pandemic began to unfold, Suzanne Kunis knew that the deadly virus wouldn’t just fill emergency rooms and ICU wards with patients who needed care for the virus. Kunis, who is Vice President for Behavioral Health at the state’s largest health insurer Horizon Blue Cross Blue Shield of New Jersey (Horizon BCBSNJ), has spent her career in mental health, and she knew that a wave of anxiety, depression, substance use disorder and other mental health problems was about to crash because she saw it happen after both 9/11 and Hurricane Sandy.

In April alone, calls to two New Jersey mental health hotlines climbed by 37 percent compared to the same period last year, according to data from the state Department of Human Services.

“The demand for mental health care skyrockets when we have a major crisis of any kind. It hits just as soon, but it typically remains for months or years at the end of the triggering event,” said Kunis. “The fact that we were facing a pandemic, a crisis virtually no one has ever experienced before here in New Jersey, meant we were going to need help dealing with a surge for counseling and therapy.”

Prior to the COVID-19 crisis, AbleTo, a leading provider of telephonic mental health care, worked with Horizon BCBSNJ to treat mostly those with chronic illnesses like diabetes or members recovering from serious health events like heart surgery. But when the pandemic began, Kunis collaborated with AbleTo to alter their relationship and get ready for the wider swath of people who would need help coping with their rising stress and anxiety levels.

Fortunately, the company was already in the process of developing a teletherapy program to meet the needs of the broader population even before the pandemic. “The outbreak and ensuing mental health crisis gave us a quick pathway to make this new teletherapy available in a really timely and relevant way,” said Reena Pande, MD, chief medical officer at AbleTo.

Now, AbleTo has partnered with Horizon BCBSNJ to offer its members free access to AbleTo’s individual teletherapy services. This partnership builds on Horizon BCBSNJ’s larger initiative to provide in-network telemedicine services to members with zero out-of-pocket costs until at least June 30, 2020.

“For Horizon BCBSNJ members, it’s never been easier or more affordable to access telemedicine, including for mental health challenges,” said Kunis. “Getting high-quality care shouldn’t be limited to in-person office visits, especially when we still need to relieve the burden on our health care system.”

Horizon BCBSNJ's commitment to addressing the growing mental health needs of the state and removing obstacles to care made AbleTo’s expanded telemedicine program possible, said Pande. “We are grateful for having their full partnership on this service that will be crucial for so many people in New Jersey,” she added.

The partnership between Horizon BCBSNJ and AbleTo couldn’t have come soon enough. There has been a significant increase in the number of people engaging in online therapy, said Pande, with many showing higher levels of stress than before.

One group is particularly concerning: workers on the front lines. “In one case, we are seeing that employees from a large hospital system have significantly greater anxiety levels compared to what we saw prior to the outbreak,” said Pande.













How AbleTo works

Working with a licensed therapist, via phone or video chat, members can learn tools and strategies to help them manage stress and anxiety. These one-on-one, confidential sessions can be scheduled at any time, with next day appointments available.

Most AbleTo participants complete up to eight weeks of treatment, with weekly sessions lasting about 45 minutes. The sessions are led by highly trained therapists and are based on the evidence-based clinical techniques of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT).

There are about 600 therapists in the AbleTo network nationwide. “All therapists in our network are specially trained to ensure that every patient receives the best quality care. They will customize a program that meets a member’s unique needs,” said Pande. “If at any point a member would like to work with a different therapist, our clinical team will assist in making a new connection.”

Online outcomes shine

Can online therapy be as valuable as in-person sessions? AbleTo’s outcomes have proven that remote therapy is highly effective, sometimes more so than traditional face-to-face therapy. People who have used AbleTo’s services have seen decreases in depression by 56 percent, anxiety by 51 percent and stress by 46 percent.

These results came from AbleTo’s previous experience with patients learning to cope with chronic conditions like heart disease. Launched on May 1, AbleTo’s expanded telemedicine services have yet to report results tied to a more general population.

But one thing is already clear. “It is especially important in these uncertain times to take as good care of your mental health as you would your physical health,” said Pande.

Eligible Horizon BCBSNJ members can sign up for a AbleTo appointment here.