Highmark expands access to Freespira's digital PTSD, panic disorder therapy

A photo of Highmark's headquarters in Pittsburgh
Highmark is expanding its partnership with Freespira, which offers a digital therapeutic for panic disorders. (Randy Tarr Photography/Shutterstock)

Highmark is expanding access to Freespira, a digital therapeutic for panic disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder, across its membership.

The insurer, which offers plans in Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Delaware, initially piloted the use of Freespira in 2016 through its VITAL Innovation program, which tests new solutions coming to market, according to an announcement.

Freespira's device aids patients in managing their symptoms by training them to normalize any respiratory irregularities. Patients also have access to coaching if they're not already connected to a behavioral health provider.

Freespira said "hypersensitivity" to carbon dioxide and breathing irregularities caused by it can be key triggers to panic disorders and that its device provides patients with real-time feedback on managing their breathing symptoms.

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In its pilot, Highmark and Freespira found 86% of participating patients were symptom-free following Freespira's 28-day treatment, and 73% were still symptom-free a year out from treatment.

In addition, the insurer noted significant cost savings among members enrolled in the pilot. Average overall medical costs were down 35% by $190 per member per month. Emergency department costs decreased by 65%, and pharmacy costs declined by 68%.

"I think this is probably a great example of, 'if you take care of the fundamental behavioral health needs … you are effecting the total healthcare of a particular patient,'" Demetrios Marousis, director of behavioral health at Highmark, told Fierce Healthcare.

Highmark and Freespira were close partners prior to the pandemic, but the explosion of digital and telehealth due to COVID-19 reinforced the value of that effort.

Dean Sawyer, CEO of Freespira, told Fierce Healthcare that the platform was designed around in-person visits with behavioral health providers and that the team was able to pivot to provide digital visits to assist with both setting up the device and patient coaching.

The device can be sent directly to a patient's home, and they are then instructed on how to use it remotely, he said.

"I think it was just sort of opportune that we were working on this, and the need sort of popped up as we were having these conversations," Marousis said. "Though not a direct response to COVID, it was certainly a fortuitous response in light of the impact COVID has had."