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CVS expands mental health services as pitch for personalized care

People walk past a CVS store in Manhattan.

Spencer Platt/Getty Images

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Retail stores are increasingly becoming hot spots for services, the biggest recent example of this is vaccination services for COVID-19 and, for some years now, the flu shot.

The next big thing coming to pharmacies: mental health services. CVS is expanding a pilot program that started in 2020 that provides in-person counseling at its clinics in a number of locations. Walmart and Walgreens are also experimenting with similar services.

When it comes to most health services, access and convenience are big factors.

“And so we’re meeting people where they’re at,” explained Cara McNulty, president of CVS Health Aetna. 

And where they’re at may not be too far from a CVS. There are nearly 10,000 in the U.S. and more than a thousand of them have walk-in health care clinics. CVS, which owns health insurer Aetna, currently has mental health professionals in 34 of those.

“Maybe you’re being seen for an ear infection and you started talking about some other issues. Our nurse practitioner could suggest you see the therapist,” McNulty said.

One piece of accessibility this may not help with is cost. CVS says for the insured, an initial assessment is, on average, $130, and $60 for half-hour sessions. Vaile Wright at the American Psychological Association says that’s on par with the median price for mental health care. But she does think the service could lessen the stigma of seeking help and the burden of finding it.

“Because I do think one of the biggest hurdles is not even knowing where to start,” explained Wright.

The start is where Wright sees most use for this type of service. CVS says it works with local providers to recommend patients for ongoing treatment or more serious mental health issues.

But what’s in it for CVS?

Mickey Chadha, an analyst at Moody’s Investors Service, said pharmacies want to establish a more personal relationship with the customer.

“Filling a prescription is a very transactional approach. Now, you’re engaging with the person behind the counter,” Chadha said.

Pharmacies want you to pick them because they provide you with specific, personalized health services, not just because they’re closest to your home or work.

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