CVS Health goes live with virtual care service with a focus on primary care, mental health

As part of its new virtual primary care service, CVS Health is expanding telehealth-based mental health care to include appointments with licensed therapists and psychiatrists. 

The retail drugstore giant announced its virtual care offering last May to give consumers access to primary care, on-demand care, chronic condition management and mental health services. 

CVS executives say the virtual primary care offering is part of the company's strategy to provide "longitudinal and holistic care to create stronger relationships between patients and their providers."

CVS Health Virtual Primary Care is now available to Aetna commercial members nationwide enrolled in eligible fully insured and self-insured health plans. The virtual solution will roll out to eligible CVS Caremark members during the second quarter. Caremark also will introduce virtual specialty care solutions on the platform later this year, CVS Health executives said last year.

Aetna members can schedule a primary care visit within days and access 24/7 quick care for common illnesses and infections as well as chronic conditions and preventive services, Creagh Milford, senior vice president of retail health at CVS Health, said in emailed comments.

"We are focused on providing omnichannel solutions so people can access care where and when they need it, whether that be virtually, in-person or at home," he said.

On average, it takes 24 days to schedule an appointment with a primary care physician, and the average wait time to see a mental health provider in person is 48 days, according to CVS executives.

For patients enrolled in the virtual care service who require in-person services such as a flu shot, blood drawn or strep throat swabs, physician-led care teams will help navigate them to in-person care with their in-network providers, including CVS MinuteClinics, Milford noted. "They can also help them identify appropriate in-network specialists if needed and can be there in between visits to support through virtual and digital follow-ups," he said.

CVS is the latest healthcare player to expand or launch such a platform in an increasingly crowded primary care market. Virtual primary care and virtual-first health plans have been a trend in the industry following an explosion in telehealth and virtual care use during the COVID-19 pandemic.

CVS has made strategic moves to expand beyond pharmacy and become a bigger provider of medical services. In September, the company announced plans to buy home health company Signify Health in a deal valued at about $8 billion in cash. That transaction is expected to close early this year.

CVS also signaled that it plans to make a big primary care play by investing or acquiring a provider. CVS, which operates 9,900 locations across the country, is looking to enhance its health services in primary care, provider enablement and home health, CVS CEO Karen Lynch said during the company's second-quarter earnings call in August.

Earlier this month, during the J. P. Morgan Healthcare Conference, CVS' corporate venture arm announced a $100 million investment in primary care startup Carbon Health. The two companies are partnering to pilot Carbon Health's primary and urgent care clinic model in the drugstore giant's retail stores.

As part of its ambitions to branch further into healthcare services, the company also is exploring virtual care options.

"Today, health care can be difficult to access and navigate and it can lack more personalized care. Patients can face months of waiting to see a provider and insufficient time with that provider once they are finally seen," Milford said. "Now more and more consumers want their health care to match the personalization and convenience they experience in banking, shopping and other areas of their lives."

Recent CVS Health and Harris Poll data show that consumers prefer telehealth. Respondents somewhat or strongly agree that telehealth appointments are quicker to provide care (77%), more convenient (76%) and make appointment scheduling easier (75%) compared to other healthcare options.

"Virtual and digital capabilities are becoming more widely adopted in health care—and consumers are responding positively to these changes," Milford said.

The virtual care service features an interoperable electronic health record that can be used across CVS Health primary care’s physician-led care team and sites of care, and it includes tighter connections to CVS pharmacists. The platform is scalable and intended to evolve to include more CVS Health services, executives said back in May.

CVS teamed up with telehealth provider Amwell (formerly American Well) to roll out the new virtual primary care service.

"To build on our current virtual care offerings, we are taking an approach that uses both our own assets and the best that vendors have to offer, which includes Amwell, to provide virtual care solutions that improve access to high-quality care. Amwell’s involvement in our CVS Health Virtual Primary Care offering is white labeled to allow us to deliver a seamless, CVS Health-branded experience," Milford said about the Amwell partnership.

As part of the new service, CVS also is expanding its virtual mental health services to provide members access to support, seven days a week, from clinicians, including appointments with licensed therapists and psychiatrists. 

"Mental health care is a fundamental element of well-being. We know that we have better results when we treat the whole person, which is why we believe it is important to bring mental health services into primary care. And today, mental health needs are becoming more urgent," Milford said.

The service provides screening and medication management for mild to moderate mental health conditions. For more complex mental health medication needs, members can schedule a mental health visit with a psychiatrist for evaluation and treatment. CVS' virtual primary care program also offers licensed mental health professionals to provide counseling services.

According to CVS' Health Care Insights Study, 59% of consumers feel it is important to their health that they have access to virtual and telehealth services, and more than 71% of consumers think a virtual visit for mental health services would be more convenient.