UnitedHealth Group sees growing demand for behavioral, mental health care
More patients are seeking treatment for anxiety, depression and substance use disorder, prompting the Minnetonka-based health care giant to add providers to its network.
UnitedHealth Group has seen a significant increase in patients seeking care for mental health and substance use
disorders, prompting the company to add network providers and adjust benefits since executives believe the trend will continue.
The growth has been across all ages, the company said, and includes more people seeking care for anxiety and depression in a sector with long-standing concerns about provider shortages and limited access to care.
Behavioral care patterns have been accelerating in recent years as patients feel more comfortable seeking services, Andrew Witty, UnitedHealth Group’s chief executive, said during a Friday call with investors.
“Just since last year the percentage of people who are accessing behavioral care has increased by double-digits,” Witty said.
“From our perspective, it is an encouraging sign that more people are seeking help, yet the ongoing shortage of qualified care providers has caused significant access challenges,” he said.
UnitedHealth Group operates one of the nation’s largest health insurers with more than 47 million people nationwide now enrolled in health plans from its UnitedHealthcare division.
The commentary on Friday fits with clear signs of increased patient need in Minnesota.
Last month, CARE Counseling, a mental health provider with eight locations across the Twin Cities, announced a partnership with UnitedHealthcare to expand access to comprehensive mental health care services. Dr. Carolyn Ogland, the chief medical officer at Robbinsdale-based North Memorial Health, said Friday that “demand for mental health services, including outpatient therapy, continues to rise as our community members are increasingly interested in and willing to access these services and care.”
OptumHealth — the unit of UnitedHealth Group that includes the company’s behavioral health division — for years has managed networks of behavioral health care providers.
Witty said the division has expanded its network by tens of thousands of care professionals this year, on the assumption that demand for behavioral care services will keep rising.
UnitedHealthcare and other insurance carriers hire these networks to provide managed mental health care within health plans.
The division includes a newer business where UnitedHealth Group directly cares for behavioral health patients, including at ambulatory care centers across 37 states, said Dr. Wyatt Decker, the unit’s chief executive.
The increased utilization has been “across the board,” said Decker, a former Mayo Clinic physician executive.
“What’s encouraging from a public health perspective is, it isn’t strictly young people. … We’re seeing 30-, 40-, 50-year-olds accessing behavioral health care for needed care, for conditions like anxiety, depression, substance use disorder,” Decker said. “Our commitment is to make sure that they have access to that care.”
UnitedHealth Group’s behavioral health division has seen controversy over the years, including a 2019 ruling from a federal judge who found that United’s coverage policies were “tainted” by cost-cutting motives. Last year, the ruling in the class-action case was overturned on appeal.
The company also has been part of a recent industrywide push by state and federal regulators to increase enforcement of mental health parity laws, which prohibit health insurers from making it harder for patients to access behavioral health care than treatment for physical health conditions.
In 2021, UnitedHealth Group agreed to pay about $2 million in penalties plus $13.6 million in restitution to participants and beneficiaries as part of a parity settlement with the U.S. Department of Labor. United said the settlement resolved “issues related to business practices no longer used by the company.”
UnitedHealth Group on Friday released its second-quarter earnings, with profit growing to nearly $5.5 billion despite higher medical costs. In June, company executives disclosed the higher cost trend saying seniors, in particular, were accessing more health care services.
More seniors are moving forward on orthopedic procedures like hip and knee replacements where patients might have been deferring care, Witty said.
“We’ve seen a shift in the the fraction of people who once they have been essentially recommended for surgery actually go through and complete the procedure,” he said. “Arguably what might drive that change is, one, more supply — so, actually, it’s more possible to go get it done — but, two, maybe a little less reticence from an individual to go into a facility in a post-COVID environment. … That feels like the thing that’s shifted.”
UnitedHealth Group reported earnings of $5.47 billion — an increase of about 8% over the year-ago quarter — on $92.9 billion in revenue. Its stock rose more than 7% Friday.