Aetna, Give an Hour team up to offer free counseling to front-line health workers

Aetna sign
Aetna is teaming up with Give an Hour to provide free counseling to front-line health workers. (Wonderlane, CC BY 2.0)

Give an Hour is an organization that has traditionally provided free mental health care to veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety and other behavioral health needs.

Amid COVID-19, however, the team decided to refocus its efforts, in part, to another group of “heroes”: front-line healthcare workers.

The group joined forces with Aetna to launch the Hospital Heroes Program, which offers six hours of counseling for clinical and nonclinical staff as well as their loved ones at no cost.

The initiative launched first in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut, the first U.S. epicenter of the pandemic. Randy Phelps, Ph.D., CEO of Give an Hour, told Fierce Healthcare that the next step is to roll out these supports in emerging hot spots such as Texas, Florida and Arizona.

“We’re going to be seeing the negative mental health effects emerging downstream in those places as well,” he said.

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Cara McNulty, president of Aetna Behavioral Health, said that the services are not limited to providers in Aetna’s network or workers covered by its health plans. She said providers from regions outside of the greater New York area who need these supports will be welcomed as well if they need counseling.

“This is about democratizing access to care in time of need,” she said.

She said the insurance company began exploring an initiative like this after tracking data on health workers who traveled to assist from Wuhan, China, who were experiencing high levels of anxiety and burnout as a result.

Once the virus reached the U.S., healthcare workers were likely to face similar struggles, she said. That prompted her team to reach out to Give an Hour, a group Aetna had a long-standing relationship with, to find ways to offer mental health care to those on the front lines.

Health workers are also frequently hesitant to seek out care when they need it, she said.

“We fast-tracked this moving forward because we could see it brewing and see that we need to support these providers any way we can,” McNulty said.

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The additional challenge in addressing these behavioral health needs was ensuring that the sessions were available through telehealth. Phelps said that Give an Hour has worked with its 4,500 providers to educate them on virtual visits.

He said the group offers new educational materials each Tuesday on telehealth. The nonprofit is also working to find free, Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act-compliant platforms for its clinicians.

In addition, while working at the American Psychological Association prior to joining Give an Hour, Phelps gained plenty of experience “trying to get mental health providers to move over to the modern world,” he said.

McNulty said Aetna’s providers expressed concern about the transition to additional telehealth, so having those supports in place was crucial.

“It’s easy to think that providers have all the answers and that they should know everything about everything—when they’re human,” she said.