WEA Trust, a Madison-based health insurer, is preparing to expand its reach by providing mental health solutions through telemedicine.
The company has been around since the 1970s, when it first came on the market offering health insurance for Wisconsin teachers. It used to negotiate with teachers’ unions for its business, but that changed in 2011 when Act 10 was passed and collective bargaining went away.
The insurer has now pivoted to offer health insurance to all public employees. One unique element of its business model is that it doesn’t offer individual insurance — only group plans.
“Our niche is really the public employer space; all our efforts are concentrated here,” said Kyle Humphrey, senior director for marketing and product development at WEA Trust. “We know this area better than any other.”
WEA Trust has been offering a telehealth option through AmWell to its over 83,000 members since 2015. It acts like a video chat, granting access to state-certified physicians for common conditions that don’t quite warrant a visit to urgent care.
The insurer is now repurposing the platform for mental health.
“We’ve long looked at things like prescription data; antidepressants are the top prescription in any part of the state,” he said. “That speaks to the fact that this is an issue members are struggling with, and we need to do more around.”
Starting July 1, members will be able to connect with therapists and psychologists through their smartphones and tablets.
“That means people can access it conveniently through devices, and it lets them do it in privacy, whenever is convenient for them,” he added.
That’s important, he says, because of the two main issues plaguing mental health sufferers in Wisconsin: stigma and lack of access.
Humphrey said Wisconsin is ranked 35th in the country for access to mental health resources — “not a great spot to be in.” He insists that with Wisconsin traditionally being “near the top” in its ability to provide health care, mental health should be a part of that.
“That speaks to a shortage of practitioners people need to access,” he said. “If you are looking to get an appointment, it will take about five weeks until you meet with someone for the first time.”
He said WEA Trust’s platform will cut that time down to two or three days.
And he also said the stigma of seeking mental health treatment often keeps people from pursuing the help they need for fear of being harshly judged by colleagues and employers.
Using the telehealth platform to seek help when convenience allows, without needing to take time off of work, would reduce that concern for employees.
“Leveraging tech to allow them to do it anytime — we think that addresses the issues of stigma and access in a more holistic way,” Humphrey said.
May is Mental Health Month, and WEA Trust is holding a special event May 23 to kick off the launch of the new telehealth offerings. The event is being held to show how the new services platform will work, but “also how its addressing different aspects of the mental health struggle.”
The Future of Mental Wellness event will be held at the Discovery Building in Madison, from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. WEA Trust is providing a free shuttle service from its offices at 45 Nob Hill Road in Madison, before and after the event.
“It’s a sensitive topic,” Humphrey said. “My hope is, this is the time to bring it out into the open… Make it easier for them to get care.”
–By Alex Moe