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Florida seniors get new option for mental health help from home

South Florida Sun Sentinel - 6/3/2024

Medicare enrollees in Florida now have greater access to mental health help from home.

Talkspace, a national online behavioral healthcare company, is rolling out its service to 5 million traditional Medicare members in Florida.

The company said its tele-mental health therapy aims to address the high rates of anxiety and depression in seniors. About 20% of people 55 years or older experience some type of mental health concern, according to the American Association of Geriatric Psychiatry. Traditionally, waiting lists for therapists can be long and services costly.

“Given the alarmingly limited number of behavioral health providers that accept Medicare, Talkspace now opens up access to affordable, high-quality care for millions of Medicare members — within days — from the comfort of their own homes,” said Dr. Jon Cohen, Talkspace chief executive officer.

Medicare enrollees using Talkspace undergo a matching process that considers preferences and connects them with a Florida-licensed therapist. The senior can schedule an appointment and see their therapist via a live one-on-one video session using a smartphone, tablet, or home computer.

“All you need is a WiFi connection,” said Dr. Nikole Benders-Hadi, chief medical officer with Talkspace. “You don’t need transportation and there is no copay.” If the match doesn’t work out, she says, Talkspace finds you someone else. “It’s easy to make a switch.”

The platform launched in 2012, has a national presence, and until now, users have accessed it mostly through their employer-sponsored health plans. Talkspace leaders say their goal is to bring it to Floridians in Medicare Advantage plans, too.

Benders-Hadi said seniors became more comfortable with telehealth during the pandemic and should find Talkspace’s service easy to use.

Nationally, the country is experiencing a shortage of mental health professionals, raising concerns about how the platform will keep up with demand. Talkspace has an aggressive recruiting department that attracts new contractors, Benders-Hadi said. The company also helps its therapists get licensed in multiple states. She said the company’s network includes doctorate level physchologists, therapists, social workers, marriage and family therapists, psychiatric nurse practitioners and psychiatrists who can help with medication management.

Other digital platforms such as BetterHelp and Headway also offer mental health services, but Talkspace may be the first to expand to Medicare enrollees.

Charlotte Mather-Taylor, CEO of the Area Agency on Aging Broward County, said she sees firsthand how much seniors suffer from isolation and the stress of daily living, including paying bills as costs increase.

“That can cause mental health issues,” she said.

Also, she said, many older adults are dealing with grief, losing a partner or loved one after many years.. While her agency provides counseling, “some seniors lack transportation or mobility.” Also, she notes, caregivers for spouses may not have time to go to appointments outside their homes.

“This gives them an opportunity to get the mental health support they need,” she said.

Mather-Taylor said the video platform that Talkspace offers is important for seniors, “so a professional can see them and have a visual view of how they are reacting to the conversation.”

Mather-Taylor believes most seniors will be able to use the technology: “You may not get everyone, but you can get more seniors to get help than who get it now.”

Sun Sentinel health reporter Cindy Goodman can be reached at cgoodman@sunsentinel.com or on X @cindykgoodman.

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