Mental Health Platform Wave Gains First Payer Contract

Wave, a mental health startup, is now an in-network provider for Aetna members in California, the company shared with MedCity News exclusively. Aetna is Wave’s first payer customer, though the company also works with employers and consumers.

Palo Alto, California-based Wave offers digital mental health care through its app. Patients can receive support from mental health coaches — who also function as care coordinators — and therapists. They can have one-on-one digital sessions with their coach and message them through the app in between sessions. In addition, patients receive a custom program with exercises to address their mental health and physical health.

Through Wave’s contract with Aetna in California, 3.5 million commercial members have access to the company’s services. Wave and Aetna have a fee-for-service agreement. While the contract only serves members in California, Wave hopes to go in network with Aetna and other insurers across the country, said Dr. Sarah Adler, founder and CEO of Wave. By the end of the year, it aims to work with insurers in 41 states.

“We see this as a first step,” Adler said in an interview. “This really allows Californians now — but hopefully nationwide and with other health plans as well — to access high-quality care that demonstrates outcomes and makes care more affordable.”

She noted, however, that while Wave is only in-network with Aetna in California, its services are available to consumers and employers nationwide. Starting in the direct-to-consumer market allowed the company to build outcomes data to bring to payers like Aetna, according to Adler.

Wave uses an approach called stepped care, in which patients start with less intensive treatments and then are escalated to more intensive treatments if determined necessary. And instead of only relying on therapists, the company offers support from coaches, who are much more affordable, Adler said. 

“We try to look at mental health as a wave (hence the name) where you have moments of high acuity or you have a real need, or you might have moments where it’s more preventative or it’s more maintenance,” Adler said. “We really want to make sure from a dose effect that you’re getting the right care at the right time in a way that preserves resources so that the highest level of care is really only going to those folks who really absolutely need it.”

This kind of approach is needed as the mental health industry grapples with a massive workforce shortage. As of December 2023, more than half of Americans live in a mental health professional shortage area, according to the Bureau of Health Workforce. In California, specifically, 5.6 million people have a mental health condition, but 63% of adults aren’t able to receive support. However, even those who can receive support struggle to afford it. In California, the average therapy session fee is $175.

“There’s a huge supply and demand imbalance where we just don’t have enough therapists who can meet the needs of the number of people who need quality mental health care. … Wave was born out of that need,” Adler said.

Other similar companies in the mental health space include Spring Health and Lyra Health.

Photo credit: Bohdan Skrypnyk, Getty Images

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