A customer service team on the front lines of behavioral health

Published January 30, 2020

Regence BlueCross BlueShield, operating health plans in Oregon and Utah; Regence BlueShield, operating health plans in Washington; and Regence BlueShield of Idaho, operating health plans in Idaho—collectively referred to as “Regence” throughout this story—have recreated the customer service experience for members seeking behavioral health support.

Most of the calls Regence customer service answers start out the same. Members are looking for help understanding their benefits or finding a doctor. But sometimes, there’s a much deeper request for help.

“I answer the phone and they say, ‘I need help,’” says Shelby Wilson, a Regence customer service professional. “I ask their first and last name, and their voice cracks, and my heart breaks a little bit.”

Regence has trained a select customer service team in an eight-hour Mental Health First Aid course that equips them to handle crisis calls like those Wilson describes. In the same way first-aid responders are trained for medical emergencies, Mental Health First Aid training equips this customer service team to recognize and respond to mental health needs. If a member calls in crisis or simply needs support navigating care options for a mental health condition, the team is prepared to help.

“Mental Health First Aid teaches you to see the person underneath what’s happening—separate from their illness or symptoms—and treat them with respect and dignity,” says Fayth Dickenson, Regence’s Behavioral Health Utilization Management Supervisor and one of two on-staff Mental Health First Aid trainers. “There’s a lack of support for people [with mental health issues] because we don’t know what to say. One of the biggest takeaways [from the course] is learning how to ask those hard questions and have the conversation.”

"For questions about mental health, press 4"

Fortunately, crisis calls are the exception. Most of the time when members call Regence to talk about mental health, they are looking for help understanding and using their benefits. To make sure those members get the personalized, expert care they need, Regence created a separate behavioral health call queue, made up of 17 specially trained customer service professionals.

When a member calls the Regence customer service number today, the voice on the other end prompts them, "For questions about mental health, press 4."

"I wanted to parse these kinds of calls off and get them to a more specialized team," says Vice President of Customer Service Penny Garrett. “Up to 30% of calls are behavioral health-related. It’s a relatively small percentage of our total call volume, but these are some of the most complex and involved calls that our customer service professionals manage.”

That's because finding a mental health provider is different from finding a medical doctor, says Angela Bereczky, who takes calls on the behavioral health call queue. "The challenge is availability. There may not be many [providers] in your specific area, or they could be booked and don't have an opening for five weeks out. Then some require a referral. This can be a very challenging process for members, particularly during a difficult time."

Bereczky and the 16 other individuals that make up this specialized call queue are dedicated to helping members navigate these challenges.

“When we put out a call for volunteers to staff the behavioral health call queue, we got more than we needed," says Garrett. "That really spoke to me about where their hearts are at."

"If I call you tomorrow, will you answer the phone?"

This specialized service is making a difference for Regence members.

Wilson remembers one of her toughest calls: "I was on the phone with a woman who unloaded everything on me before I could get a word in. She'd had a double mastectomy and her boyfriend broke up with her and asked her to move out. She felt like she was a burden to her kids, and her doctors thought her cancer was back."

The call came in on a Thursday night, and the member needed to speak to a mental health provider as soon as possible. She told Wilson she was at her breaking point, but finding a provider that could see her toward the end of the week was increasingly difficult. While Wilson worked on finding an appointment, she asked the woman whether she was feeling suicidal. It was an uncomfortable question to ask.

The member said no, but admitted to thinking about it. "If I call you tomorrow, will you answer the phone?" Wilson asked.

Wilson called the member every day for a week until she was able to get her into counseling.

Later, the woman sent Wilson a letter. She thanked her for being there and for being persistent. She said Wilson was her ray of sunlight in her darkest day.

"I don't know that I would have been able to ask her about [having suicidal thoughts] without Mental Health First Aid training," Wilson says. “But I’m so thankful for it, and I know our member was, too.”

Regence BlueCross BlueShield, Regence Blue Shield and Regence BlueShield of Idaho are independent licensee of the Blue Cross Blue Shield Association, an association of independent, locally operated Blue Cross and Blue Shield companies. Learn more about Regence’s efforts to support the behavioral health of their members.