Company tries providing mental health care at Walmart

In mental health care, is something better than nothing? Some experts and an intermediary between providers and insurance companies disagree.

Beacon Health Options is trying the idea at a store in Carrollton, Texas, as a way to bring mental health care to underserved areas.

“We chose a retail setting for the first practice because it offers the convenience of a local neighborhood location that is close by and easy to get to, and our evening hours accommodate our patients’ schedules,” company CEO Russell C. Petrella said in a press release.

The Walmart clinic is intended for people with “milder” forms of mental illness — “anxiety, depression, grief, relationship issues, and the stresses of everyday living.” Serious mental illnesses will still be referred to other professionals in Beacon’s network, the Boston Globe says.

“People don’t know how to find a behavioral health or mental health professional,” Petrella tells the Globe. “People don’t know where to go and what to do.”

Treat access to mental health care like other illnesses? Check. Expand availability so you don’t have to wait months for help? Check. Make health care more available to those least likely to get it? Check.

Those are all goals that people have said they want.

So what’s the problem?

Beacon, which manages mental health care for 40 million people, has a reputation of being one of those companies that puts roadblock after roadblock in front of people needing mental health care, the Globe says, which is why some experts aren’t ready to buy into the whole idea. It’s a privately-held company, part of the Bain Capital stable.

“If Beacon were serious about expanding access to mental health services, it would focus on doing a better job in its current lines of business,” Vic DiGravio, CEO of the Massachusetts trade group of treatment providers, tells the paper. “What Beacon is really good at is limiting access to treatment. They’re not so good at promoting access to treatment.”

The plan to open retail clinics is “treating the symptom, not the real problem,” said Ian A. Lang, executive director of the Brookline Center for Community Mental Health. “If you truly want to move the system forward, you’ve got to pay providers.”

A lot of providers don’t take insurance because the reimbursement rates from the companies are too low. The Beacon CEO says the company is working to address the problem but his assessment leaves room for the skeptics.

“We could drastically increase rates and I’m not sure we could get the kind of services we need,” he said, suggesting providers are too slow and unwilling to adopt newer treatment methods.

“Our whole goal is to give people services that work,” he said.

Even if people got services that didn’t, that would be more than many are getting now.