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Should Mental Healthcare Be Considered Primary Care?

Analysis  |  By Eric Wicklund  
   October 19, 2023

Highmark Health recently announced the integration of behavioral healthcare into its health plan portal. It’s evidence that health systems are taking a close look at what primary care really means.

Healthcare organizations are starting to understand that mental healthcare shouldn’t be treated as a specialty, but as an integral part of primary care.

Pennsylvania-based Highmark Health is making that connection by integrating behavioral healthcare services into its insurance plans through the My Highmark digital health portal. The platform is supported by Spring Health, a New York-based mental healthcare provider serving more than 4,500 employers and health plans.

The collaboration addresses a key pain point in healthcare, and an understanding that many primary care concerns are either linked with behavioral health concerns or can be better treated through a care plan that includes behavioral healthcare. Many primary care providers don’t have the background in behavioral healthcare to treat patients themselves, so access to specialists—especially through a digital health platform—is crucial to improving care management.

“We want healthcare to be personalized,” says Anil Singh, MD, MPH, FCC, senior vice president and executive medical director of population and curated health for Highmark Health, which announced the collaboration at last week’s HLTH conference in Las Vegas. “And we want to be proactive” in addressing health concerns before they become serious.

With a nationwide shortage of psychiatrists and other mental healthcare providers, particularly in rural regions, health systems are looking to digital health partnerships to bolster their platforms and give patients and health plan members access to hospital-approved (and branded) services. Highmark Health, a combination payer-provider, is offering the service, called Highmark’s Mental Well-Being powered by Spring Health, through its health plans.

Singh says the program mirrors a nationwide trend to shift away from episodic care and toward a value-based approach of whole-person care, or what Highmark calls its Living Health strategy. The idea is to bunch together a collection of services aimed at not only addressing immediate concerns, but chronic and preventive care as well.

"Expanding access and making it easier for members to engage with a personalized treatment plan helps us intervene earlier, driving a cultural shift in the behavioral health space and cost savings, which Highmark Health reinvests in the consumer experience as part of our Living Health model," he said in a press release accompanying the HLTH press conference.

The key to the collaboration is that behavioral health becomes a part of the primary care platform, rather than an added service.

“What we don’t want is to have a bunch of apps sitting on a person’s smartphone,” he said.

As more and more health systems look to integrate mental health and primary care, leadership will be taking a hard look at ROI. Singh said Highmark is concerned first and foremost about expanding access to care, with a platform that offers many more access points for members, including children, teens, and those in rural areas. Beyond that, they’ll take a good look at quality and outcomes, ranging from follow-up care to hospitalizations.

“It’s really about moving upstream,” he said, to help improve healthcare before it becomes emergency care.

Eric Wicklund is the associate content manager and senior editor for Innovation, Technology, and Pharma for HealthLeaders.


Healthcare organizations are looking for ways to add behavioral healthcare to the primary care platform, to address a nationwide shortage of psychiatrists and other specialists and an epidemic of mental health concerns.

Integrating these services gives health systems an opportunity to address a key gap in care delivery and improve health and wellness, thus boosting clinical outcomes and curbing serious health outcomes later on.

Experts say integrating behavioral and primary care can also reduce the costs associated with accessing specialty care and give providers more opportunities to support whole-person care.

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