Insurance Leader Making Addiction and Mental Health a Focus for CEOs

  • Mary Nasenbenny, an exec at The Hartford, oversees all claims at the insurance giant.
  • She and CEO Chris Swift are working with employers to help workers with mental health and addiction.
  • In an Equity Talk, Nasenbenny talks about how mental health and addiction are DEI issues.

Most interviews I do around diversity, equity, and inclusion leave a mark on me. But this one cuts deeper.

Mary Nasenbenny is the chief claims officer at The Hartford. She oversees all disability and workers’ compensation claims at one of America’s largest insurance providers.

She sees firsthand how many Americans struggle with mental health and addiction, and she’s working with CEOs at top companies to break the stigma and provide more resources.

In describing her work, Nasenbenny mentioned that if a Hartford claim officer notices a doctor overprescribing opioids, the company will deny the claim or call the physician.

“If we see a doctor prescribing 30 days for something our medical experts think should have a three- or five-day prescription, we’ll stop it. We’ll deny it,” she said.

For a second, my world stopped. You see, that’s how my late brother, Matthew, became addicted to opioids.

At age 13, a doctor prescribed him 30 days of opioids for what could have been treated with one or two high-strength Tylenol. As a young teen, he struggled quietly with addiction. At 21, he died from an accidental opioid overdose/fentanyl poisoning.

As Nasenbenny spoke, I had flashbacks of finding empty opioid bottles in his room. Of me sitting down with Matthew to talk, and him telling me he was trying. In another reality, could Nasenbenny’s work have saved my brother?

“We do feel like we have an opportunity to save lives,” she told Insider. I paused and let her words linger.

Marguerite Ward (One Time Use)

Insider’s Marguerite Ward, left, her three sisters, and her brother, Matthew, who died of an accidental opioid overdose/fentanyl poisoning in 2019.

Aileen Brown

In the latest installment of The Equity Talk, The Hartford’s chief claims officer explained how mental health and substance use disorder are diversity and inclusion issues, the ways in which she’s working with CEOs to provide more workers with better care, and how The Hartford is conducting research to change the national conversation on these issues.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

How are mental health and substance-use disorders issues of diversity, equity, and inclusion?

The data has clearly demonstrated that everyone is affected by the current mental health and addiction crisis. These are medical conditions that have touched the lives of all Americans, myself included, with extended family members. Disability is a DEI issue.

Second, there is a stigma that sometimes prevents many people from getting the help they need. And what our research shows is that it’s even more pronounced among Black, Hispanic, and Asian Americans — they are more likely to not feel comfortable talking about their concerns or their mental health needs as compared to white Americans, and then they are less likely to also reach out and get the support they need.

Our CEO Chris Swift is deeply passionate and concerned about the nation’s mental health and addiction crises. One of the many things he does is meet with our employee resource groups to learn more about how these issues impact them.

We have a group of Black insurance professionals, for example, and Chris will meet with them to better understand the unique challenges they face. He wants to learn about the specific nuances that might be present in a specific community. He gets a lot of feedback and insight. And we use that when making business decisions and recommendations on policies and practices.

These are medical conditions that have touched the lives of all Americans. Disability is a DEI issue.

Do you feel the CEOs at companies you provide insurance to actually care about mental health and addiction policies? Or do you have to work hard to make the case for these policies?

The pandemic has created much more awareness and much more interest in having dialogues on these issues. Our research has shown that 71% of employers believe that deteriorating mental health conditions in their workforce negatively affect their company performance.

We also have data that shows untreated mental illness costs companies about $300 billion annually due to loss of productivity, absenteeism, turnover, and things like that. So it’s undeniable that there is a connection.

And so even maybe business leaders who wouldn’t have otherwise understood or appreciated, I think they see it in their bottom line. They’re realizing that.

Yes, it’s clear that your company’s CEO is passionate about these issues. What is his and your primary goal around mental health and addiction?

We have three different purposes, and I think that they’re all connected. One is, we are an insurance carrier and we have customers and injured and ill workers that the employers buy our policies for.

We also have an employee population of our own. We’ve got almost 19,000 employees at The Hartford. So it’s very important that we are healthy and have the support we need. And we work to build a culture, to the extent that we can, that completely eliminates the stigma and helps employees take advantage of the support we have.

And then more broadly, our CEO has worked with his peer leaders to create cultures that allow people to feel comfortable not only talking about these issues, but also to take advantage of the support that’s available.

a person getting help

The Hartford is working to educate doctors on addiction, the stigma around substance use disorder, and responsible pain management.

Nadia_bormotova/Getty Images

Part of the frustration many people feel around DEI is that it can feel like it’s all talk and no action. How are you changing corporate America in tangible ways?

We’re working with Yale University to educate physicians on addiction and mental health to provide them with programs so that they can spot issues, especially when there’s chronic pain involved. We’re helping doctors treat pain in different ways and reduce the stigma around addiction.

We’re also working with the national substance-use-disorder nonprofit Shatterproof to educate our own employees and our leaders about managing addiction. We see a lot of individuals who come to us with claims who are on opioids or have a mental health condition, oftentimes an untreated mental health condition. So that becomes part of our responsibility, to help them manage through it, remove barriers to resources, and get them the care they need so they can recover quickly.

We are also working with the Milken Institute and the National Alliance on Mental Illness to conduct research and provide employers with resources and educational materials on mental health and addiction.

And finally, we partner with the companies for whom we provide insurance. If we see trends within one of our customers that suggest they have more addiction issues or mental health issues than other like-minded, similarly situated companies, we will bring that to their attention.

We’re really sensitive about employee privacy, so we don’t share names, but to the extent that there are trends that an employer might not be aware of but that we see through their claim data, we will provide that back to them so that they can make appropriate investments

America’s mental health and addiction crises are huge issues. How do you feel being at the center of some employers’ responses?

This work is about taking care of people and restoring lives when the unexpected happens. And we do that every day, with over a million claims a year. I really think we are making a difference and helping change lives. And so I’m very proud to be a part of this. Very, very proud.

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