Cigna’s Evernorth Continues…

“[W]e expect continuing to improve access to care will play a crucial role in the health care delivery system post-pandemic,” says Evernorth’s behavioral health CMO.

Cigna has expanded its virtual offerings by expanding its partnership with Meru Health, a provider of app-based digital mental health services. What began as a three-state pilot in 2020 has now grown, with Meru Health now the national health network of Cigna’s health services division, Evernorth. The addition marks Cigna and Evernorth’s growing digital offerings, which begin with MDLive online provider services and now include virtual-first health plans in selected markets.

In a press release, startup Meru Health’s CEO and Founder Kristian Ranta stated: “It’s exciting to see the rapid adoption of online services like Meru Health. Our research shows we can deliver better results than traditional care, and continuing to do so is our top priority—while the pandemic drags on and beyond.”

Meru’s addition reflects the changing face of payer provider network definitions to include digital therapeutics (DTx). While most DTx applications include human support—on-demand clinicians in the case of Meru—they represent a growing “front door” to treatment that have improved care access during the pandemic and beyond. Whether these solutions are able to lower costs and improve quality over time remains to be seen.

Data from trials and real-world evidence are the life’s blood of these DTx ventures, encouraging payer uptake and, where required, supporting FDA clearance. Meru is one of many DTx companies courting health plan clients and using research outcomes to do it. In one peer-reviewed study, participants responded more positively to Meru’s intervention than use of antidepressants (60% at 12-month follow-up compared to 30%).

Meru Health is not the first company to join Cigna and Evernorth’s digital portfolio. Cigna first partnered with MDLive pre-pandemic to offer members virtual wellness visits. Evernorth acquired MDLive in April 2021, which has allowed the company to expand its virtual services beyond primary to dermatology, behavioral, and urgent care. The service is available to all Cigna employer-sponsored plans and is the foundation of Cigna’s new virtual-first $0 copay plans.

In the Meru release, Evernorth CMO of Behavioral Health Doug Nemecek, MD stated: “Virtual care has been key to helping people address mental health needs, and we expect continuing to improve access to care will play a crucial role in the health care delivery system post-pandemic.”

In calling out the burnout support aspect of Meru Health, Nemecek highlighted the rarely discussed expansion of healthcare’s Triple Aim. Before the COVID-19, the Institute for Healthcare Improvement (IHI) began a conversation on the Quadruple Aim, a fourth aspect of better care defined differently by different groups. The IHI noted: “For many organizations, the fourth aim is attaining joy in work. For others, it’s pursuing health equity.” The pandemic has revealed a powerful intersection of these aims—burnout among not only corporate employees but healthcare workers. The Cigna/Evernorth and Meru Health partnership is but one example of the innovations stakeholders are pursuing.

Laura Beerman is a contributing writer for HealthLeaders.

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