Will CVS make a breakthrough as it expands in-store mental health services?

Source: CVS Health
May 04, 2021

CVS is expanding a pilot program offering mental health counseling and therapy services inside stores. The program is designed to help make such services more accessible and affordable to the public, with an expected side benefit of reducing overall healthcare costs.

The chain launched the pilot in January in 17 stores across three states and is expanding it to 34 by July.

“Stressed? Feeling a little down? We want to help,” CVS writes on the program’s online landing page.

The program guides customers to meet with licensed therapists and social workers who can provide behavioral assessments, referrals and on-the-spot counseling, according to a news release. Customers can book in-person sessions in private consultation rooms or telehealth consultations.

The sessions are integrated with the pharmacy. Eve Townsend, a licensed social worker and therapist working at a CVS in Jenkintown, PA, told NPR, “To be able to say I can refer you within this clinic with a nurse practitioner or you can get your medication in the same place where you’re getting your mental health services — it’s like a one-stop-shop.”

Therapists are in high demand due to the pandemic. According to the Aetna Mental Health Pulse Survey 2021, 65 percent of Americans ages 18 to 34 have had concerns about their own mental health or that of household members, family or friends since the outbreak.

The long-term hurdle to accessibility, however, has been affordability. In most areas of the country, sessions cost $100 to $200 a person, according to therapist directory GoodTherapy.org. CVS charges $59 for a telehealth session. CVS, which has owned Aetna since 2018, is covering the cost for Aetna-insured patients and negotiating for similar terms with other insurers.

More broadly, studies have shown addressing depression, anxiety and stress can ward off more serious health issues.

“You’re not going to be able to reduce emergency visits if you can’t address some of the other problems that they have around mental health,” Jeff Cook, VP HealthHUB Strategy and Products, CVS Health, told NPR.

Among other retailers, Walmart operates about 20 Walmart Health in-store clinics that charge $45 for 45-minute counseling sessions.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS: Does it make business sense for pharmacies to offer mental health services and therapy alongside current services in those stores? What do you think will be the keys to success or failure in these endeavors?

Please practice The RetailWire Golden Rule when submitting your comments.
"Who could possibly be better positioned to offer a full spectrum of health care services to local residents who would otherwise not know where to begin to look for help? "
"If there is a service in the world which shouldn’t become corporatized, it’s mental health services."
"From a business sense, demand will dictate if these services are successful or not."

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28 Comments on "Will CVS make a breakthrough as it expands in-store mental health services?"

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Neil Saunders

Kudos to CVS for offering these services, which are important and provide real value to consumers. Given the reach of CVS and Walgreens, if rolled out these services would have tremendous reach across all parts of the country and would make mental health services more accessible and, hopefully, reduce the unfair stigma sometimes associated with them. That said, physical environment plays a big role in well being and I do think CVS should look to improve the rather grim nature of its stores. There’s a store near us which has a new HealthHUB. The design is nice but it is often full of random boxes and junk and the rest of the store looks so down-at-heel. This does not suggest wellness!

Christine Russo

My initial thought was no, it won’t be effective. However in the game of pulling foot traffic from others like Walgreens and Walmart it’s a differential that could be effective. I feel like the CVS in-store environment could be improved (lighting, etc.) and that could be a big priority as well.

DeAnn Campbell

I agree with you on CVS’s need to up their environment. But I did see that Walgreens began testing drones in 2019 with a partner called Wing. Came in handy last year to deliver toilet paper I think. 🙂

Shep Hyken

The goal of today’s retailer is to be a part of their customer’s daily routine. Another great strategy is to be “sticky” in the sense that it’s hard to leave and do business elsewhere. The service CVS is offering does exactly that. And it is right in their lane; it’s all about health. The extension to offering services for mental health, eye exams, and other medical related services could make CVS a one-stop shop for routine medical and health needs. The drawback is space. How much retail space will this take away? Will the revenue offset the loss in retail sales due to reducing the retail footprint? Will the repeat and loyal business earned from having such a service help drive higher revenue? Those are important questions (and answers) to consider.

Dr. Stephen Needel

I can’t resist: Are they crazy?! There is, unfortunately, still a stigma to seeking mental health care. Should they encourage it? Sure. Should it be even vaguely obvious to everyone in the store that your are seeking help? Not today. Society is not nearly enlightened enough. Big-time fail.

Gary Sankary

I’m sorry, your comment perpetrates that stigma you are calling out. I think there are areas of mental health and counseling that CVS customers would be interested in — smoking cessation and weight management come to mind. For more serious conditions, just like I wouldn’t go to CVS for an EKG or surgery, I wouldn’t go there for a serious mental health problem. That leaves a TON of room for more maintenance and routine care that probably don’t require an ER or Crisis Unit.

Dr. Stephen Needel

I’m not sure I’d call either a mental health problem, although psychology has a fair amount to say about smoking cessation and weight management. My reading of the post was that this was for more serious issues requiring a therapist or a social worker.

Zel Bianco

At first glance, it sounds like a crazy idea but when you think of how many people are suffering from mental issues during the pandemic, it is a smart idea and one that CVS and others should be proud to offer.

There are so many people that simply do not have the resources to have regular sessions with a therapist and CVS is making the access to therapists easier than ever. They will need to work on lowering the costs as even at the level they are now offering, they may be out of reach for many. Those that are from lower income households are the ones that will not seek treatment, even though they may need it the most.

It sounds so odd to see a therapist at a CVS store but, as long as they have a private room, it could be the answer to many who desperately need help.

DeAnn Campbell

Pharmacies are in the heart of almost every community. If not CVS then who could possibly be better positioned to offer a full spectrum of health care services to local residents who would otherwise not know where to begin to look for help? Last year saw an unprecedented impact on mental health for almost everyone to some degree. For those who need a little guidance to deal with the stress of a year of pandemic and political warfare, this makes perfect sense as a trusted and familiar starting point. For the past 18 years, Gallup’s trust survey has placed pharmacists in the top five most trusted professionals, making retailers like CVS a natural fit for expanded health advice, referrals, services and products for local residents.

Suresh Chaganti

I am glad that CVS is expanding into this area. Seeing the services in a mainstream location like CVS may help reduce the levels of taboo, and convey the feeling that it is ok to seek help. From a layperson’s view, I think the challenge is the lack of enough qualified practitioners in this specialization.

Rick Watson

I think this is part of the future of retail. Not just products but services and lifestyle. Sleep apnea, diabetes, nutrition, and weight counseling are other massive opportunity areas for pharmacies.

Mark Price

It is clear that this country is facing a mental health crisis coming out of the COVID-19 pandemic. Accessibility is one of the big issues, as well as cost. CVS seems to be addressing both of those issues within their clinics. The one drawback is that the pharmacy is not exactly a place where you would expect to receive thoughtful counseling. However quick assessments and the ability to access a nurse practitioner on-site to receive medication could be a breakthrough for a range of patients. I think this is an excellent move and I wish them the best of success.

Dave Bruno

Offering affordable (a key part of the equation) mental health services in CVS is another way to keep their stores relevant and important to their shoppers. Plus it would provide every valuable service to the customers in need of the service, which of course helps build loyalty.

Cathy Hotka

A HUGE shout-out to CVS for piloting this. Some areas (like mine) make mental health services available only through the police. Let’s hope that this move ushers in a different attitude of compassion and understanding for the many people who have mental health challenges.

Joan Treistman
On the one hand I believe that mental health services in pharmacies will help lessen the stigma around mental health issues and also facilitate helping people who need help to get it but don’t know how or where. However if the in-store providers are not expertly vetted or monitored this could be disastrous. If the concept is more like an in-person portal assisting access to the right professional it can be an incredible useful service. However if people are being treated on the spot, like getting a vaccination in-store, it’s could do more damage than good. Privacy is one of the hallmarks of therapy and the CVS concept flies in the face of that. Success in a pilot program is not defined in the article. And a pilot program is usually tightly controlled. Spreading out to additional regions puts strains on the management of the services. I do hope the initiative is successful for the reasons I stated at the outset. Eliminating the stigma of mental health needs allows more people to get the help… Read more »
Richard Hernandez
Richard Hernandez
Director, Main Street Markets
2 months 22 days ago

It is an extension of what they offer already, and if they don’t offer it, someone else will. As long as they use licensed specialized professionals, it’s the right move.

Gary Sankary
I think this is great that CVS has recognized a critical need for Mental Health services in our communities. They deserve a lot of credit for helping to make them more accessible. From a business sense, demand will dictate if these services are successful or not. The investment CVS has made in many stores to build out their clinical services is impressive. It gives them a lot more credibility, in my opinion, when compared to other stores that have a small, converted closet next to the pharmacy as an exam room. Clearly CVS is banking on a future where their neighborhood locations look more like health center than a retail store. I do wonder a bit about counseling services. Typically these require a different type space than a clinical exam room. I also wonder how patients will feel about privacy. But if they can market the right services, these are patients who’s treatments involve several sessions over time. It makes sense to me as a way to be more engaged with their customers and pull… Read more »
Dick Seesel

Should there be better access to mental health care? Yes. Should mental health care be treated like other health care instead of being stigmatized? Absolutely. Is health care a core part of the CVS brand? Of course.

And yet, I don’t think of the average CVS shopping experience as compatible with seeking help for depression, anxiety or other mental health issues. Even a CVS store with a clinic in the back is often a stressful atmosphere in its own right. This service might be more effectively served by the large number of freestanding walk-in clinics and urgent care facilities across the country.

Lisa Goller

Yes. This move makes good business sense, as the pandemic’s profound upheaval has boosted demand for mental health resources. A recent survey by AlixPartners found more than 30 percent of respondents between 18 and 34 felt extremely or very concerned about their mental health due to the pandemic.

Bravo to CVS for normalizing total health. Making mental health services more accessible smashes the stigma that causes people to suffer in silence and shame.

Ensuring that consumers feel safe and willing to ask for help is essential. Keys to success include a trusted network of health specialists, privacy policies and secure health data management.

Dave Wendland

This is yet another move in the right direction for CVS Health. Behavioral health services align nicely with CVS HealthHub and a mission to improve the health and well-being of its customers. From sleep disorders to anxiety, being the “hub” for health services will surely position CVS as a trusted partner. That said, I agree with fellow BrainTruster Neil Saunders that improvements to store atmosphere, product arrangement, and access to care cannot be overlooked as CVS Health continues its evolution.

Gene Detroyer

Bravo CVS! For too long the drug chains have morphed into convenience stores. But should they not be healthcare centers for the neighborhoods they operate in?

How many people forgo doctor visits because it is too difficult, too time consuming or too expensive? And for all the same reasons, how many people people could improve their own mental health with just several visits to a therapist and knowing that someone is there to talk to? Mental health is healthcare and good mental health can shortcut other physical issues that we suffer.

Brandon Rael

The health and wellness movement has really gained significant momentum throughout the pandemic. CVS and its competing retail pharmacy chains have really stepped up to respond to the changing consumer behaviors. Unfortunately, mental health services have not been at the forefront of retailer’s strategies until recently.

There is a great opportunity for CVS, Walgreens, and other retail pharmacies to become the one-stop-shop for health, wellness, and medical needs, and mental health services. The first step is to recognize that it is a real issue, and as a culture, we need to remove the stigma related to mental health needs.

The first step is for organizations to have the courage to offer these services, and the next step is to provide a safe and secure environment where the customers could get the help they need.

Doug Garnett

If there is a service in the world which shouldn’t become corporatized, it’s mental health services. We already are suffering, as a society, from insurance companies forcing mental health support work into narrow channels.

This seems a very wrong-headed idea. It will grab headlines for CVS while failing to deliver what’s needed to customers.

Ryan Mathews
In the same way Amazon continues to find digital engagement connection points to the consumer, traditional brick-and-mortar retailers need to expand the number on the ways they can “touch” the consumer through services. And as healthcare costs continue to expand and Boomers (and soon Gen Xers) continue to age, the idea of bringing more and more health services closer to where people live and work clearly is a winner. And I think the world has changed enough that more and more people are accepting that anxiety, depression, etc. are normal conditions that can be as effectively treated as asthma or diabetes. So CVS seems to be on the right track here. The one caveat is that there are people who are seriously mentally ill, and a small subset of them may be violent. As the increasing number of mass shooting events demonstrates, the danger with any public space is that it attracts such individuals. A community mental health clinic is also likely to attract some of these people — most, but not all, seeking help,… Read more »
Mohamed Amer

With the shortages of mental health professionals, there is a dire need for these mental health services clinics. However that does not translate to a “build it, and they will come” moment. Situational privacy with proper layout to protect patient confidentiality is essential as well as making sure patients are not being rushed. For CVS this vertical integration, from the patient point of service to prescription pickup, will surely push revenues higher.

Ken Lonyai

The article implies that a session will cost $59. Exactly how low-quality a counselor is CVS offering for $59 given that the counselor will be paid what, maybe $30 an hour? I’ve heard horror stories from people seeking mental health services from well-educated counselors charging hundreds per hour. Certainly a high fee does not ensure quality, empathy, or dedication, but a corporate employee counselor earning a pittance of what they can make on their own or as part of a group is likely scraping the bottom of the barrel, especially when pandemic times have overwhelmed the industry. Where will they be getting these employees and what are their qualifications?

From a corporate/PR/marketing position, the concept has legs, but from a concern for patients and helping needy people, this is horrible and I hope, hope, that “patients” (customers really) are not harmed–which with mental health, can be dire if it goes wrong.

Venky Ramesh

In the pandemic world, where many are experiencing high stress levels, mental health is often the least addressed malady. Affordability and accessibility of mental health services is important in today’s times and I’m glad CVS stepped up to it. This will help them attract more customers and forge a stronger emotional relationship with their customer base.