In response to an increased demand for mental health services due to the emotional toll of the pandemic, CVS Health rolled out a pilot program earlier this year offering mental health counseling services from licensed clinical social workers at select locations. This month, it expanded the program to 11 locations in the Philadelphia and South Jersey region.

Patients can receive mental health assessments, referrals, and counseling in-person at select CVS MinuteClinics or through telehealth. Staff members also work to refer patients who need higher levels of care to local crisis centers or emergency departments. Appointments are available during the day, evenings, and weekends.

The move is part of a larger effort to make the chain’s drugstores the center of more care. On May 6, Walmart said it was buying MeMD, which gives medical and mental health care online. Similarly, Camp Hill-based Rite Aid is testing teletherapy in “virtual care rooms” in Pennsylvania and other states. And Walgreens sets up therapy appointments over the company’s online portal Walgreens Find Care, linking customers to teletherapy from BetterHelp or Sanvello.

CVS, the nation’s largest drugstore chain, has also given out more than 17 million vaccines through April, with a third going to underrepresented communities, CEO Karen Lynch told investors this month. She said the chain, which merged with Aetna three years ago, has seen more cases of domestic violence as well as increases of patients with substance abuse, depression, and anxiety.

Mental health care has often been a losing proposition financially for providers. But in CVS’s mental health program, “we are seeing three visits in a month from those individuals that have already engaged with us,” Lynch said. “We are actually seeing very strong results.”

The goal is to make behavioral health resources more accessible to people, especially those affected by the pandemic, said Ashley Karpinski, director of behavioral health strategy and innovation at CVS Health.

“Traditional resources are increasingly overwhelmed,” she said. “Individuals struggle with knowing how to get the care they need. We thought about what role we can play to address some of these challenges, we thought we could help navigate folks into therapy and figure out what types of providers they should be seeing, being in neighborhoods. That’s when we can start to break down some of the barriers we know are so prevalent in mental health.”

The stressors from COVID-19 have increased the demand for mental health services — a survey in September by the National Council for Behavioral Health found that 52% of behavioral health organizations are seeing an increase in demand for services. At the same time, the survey found that 65% of organizations have had to cancel and reschedule appointments or turn away patients.

At the CVS locations offering mental health counseling, patients complete an initial screening for anxiety and depression symptoms before discussing treatment options with the social worker on site.

“People with anxiety and depression are really understanding what kind of care they might need after coming in,” Karpinski said. “If it’s beyond what we offer at our location, we do that navigation with them.”

There has already been a lot of interest in CVS Health’s mental health services, which began this February, in South Jersey, said Heather Foley, a social worker working in a CVS MinuteClinic in Sewell. Her CVS Pharmacy location is near a number of colleges, so many young people have inquired about the services, she said.

“After the screening, we establish goals in collaboration with the patient,” Foley said. “Finding the right counselor is absolutely critical, and we want to provide solution-focused therapy.”

Currently, the CVS Pharmacy locations in Pennsylvania and New Jersey accept insurance from 13 companies, as well as Medicaid and Medicare. Out-of-pocket costs for sessions range between $30 and $129, Foley said.

“This was a response to the increased need for mental health care, especially the long wait times and challenges with patients getting providers,” she said. “This was a response to a need we saw in our communities.”

For more information on mental health services offered by CVS Health, visit cvs.com/mentalhealth.