Telehealth services are booming because of the coronavirus pandemic. Many insurers are expanding coverage and waiving cost-sharing for these virtual visits with doctors – both to help people assess coronavirus symptoms before going to a busy hospital, and for others to meet with doctors for unrelated medical issues without having to leave their homes.
Even though a lot of people are just discovering the benefits of telehealth now, these virtual doctor’s visits have been a way to save money on health care costs for a while. Almost all large employers now offer telehealth services as part of their employee health coverage, up from 7% in 2012, according to the Business Group on Health. Telehealth can cost a lot less than visiting a doctor’s office, urgent care center or the emergency room. It can be a good way to access a doctor if you have upper respiratory issues, flu, fever, rashes, cough, urinary tract infection, or pink eye, for example, says Dr. Michael Bess, vice president of health care strategies for United Healthcare.
You can meet with the doctor through a secure video visit on your phone, computer, or tablet, and can upload photos of rashes for the doctor to review. The doctors typically have electronic prescribing rights directly to the pharmacy. And more health plans are expanding telehealth into behavioral health, which helps provide access to therapists and psychologists in areas that suffer from a shortage of providers.
Most insurers partner with national telehealth provider groups to provide the service. UnitedHealthcare uses Teladoc, the largest telehealth provider, as well as Doctor on Demand and American Well. Cigna works with MDLIVE, which is staffed by its own network of providers and is expanding to meet growing needs.
Telehealth has been slow to take off until now because people don’t always know when it’s appropriate to use telehealth and when it’s important to see a doctor in person. “The hope is that as more people become more comfortable and familiar with telehealth and realize the benefits and effectiveness that they will continue to use these services even after this pandemic,” says Steve Wojcik, vice president of public policy for the Business Group on Health.
Telehealth can save you money in several ways:
Telehealth costs a lot less than in-person visits
Telehealth costs a lot less than in-person visits for minor health issues. The national median cost for a video-based virtual visit is $50, compared to $85 for low-severity treatment at a doctor’s office, $130 for an urgent care facility visit, and $740 for an emergency room visit, according to UnitedHealthcare. The savings can be significant if you have to pay the full cost yourself before you reach your insurer’s deductible.
Even if you’re only charged a co-payment, you’ll usually pay a lot less for telehealth than for other types of visits. Cost-sharing varies by plan (and sometimes by state), but insurers usually charge lower copayments for telehealth than for doctor’s visits, and much less than they do for emergency room visits.
“Telehealth is a simple, fixed rate, which brings a level of predictability that other options do not offer,” says Julie McCarter, vice president of product solutions at Cigna. “Out-of-pocket costs will be the same or less than an in-person visit at a doctor’s office and will cost less than going to an urgent care clinic, and much less than going to an emergency room.”
Cost-sharing varies by plan, but you may have a $15 co-pay for telehealth, for example, or a $50 co-pay for urgent care and a co-pay of $150 or more for an emergency room visit.
Many insurers are waiving cost sharing for certain types of telehealth visits and for COVID-19 testing and treatment for the next few months. These rules are changing frequently, so call your insurer or check its website for the current rules.
Virtual visits save time and provide 24/7 access
Having 24/7 access to a doctor from your home can save you time and money. Rather than having to take time off from work to see a doctor during office hours, you can meet with the doctor quickly online. You can avoid sitting in the doctor’s office or ER and worry about getting sick, which has been particularly helpful recently (although telehealth wait times have been longer than usual because of recent demand).
If you have an emergency at night, you may have limited options – such as an urgent-care center or the emergency room, which tend to cost a lot more than doctor’s office visits. Using telehealth can save you money and time, and get your care faster.
It also helps you avoid waiting days (or longer) for an appointment for non-emergency care. “Having to go to the doctor’s office means that people wait longer to be treated,” says Jeff Levin-Scherz, co-leader of the North American Health Management Practice for benefits consulting firm Willis Towers Watson. For example, someone with a urinary tract infection could be diagnosed quickly through telehealth, rather than waiting to have a doctor’s appointment, he says.
Expanded access to behavioral health
The fastest-growing use of telehealth is for behavioral health, such as visits with a therapist or psychologist. In a 2019 survey by Willis Towers Watson, 73% of the employers offered behavioral telehealth services, 6% were planning to offer it for 2020 and 10% were planning to offer it in 2021. “Telemedicine for behavioral health makes sense because you’re not doing a physical or lab exams,” says Levin-Scherz.
Many people are attracted to the privacy of meeting with a behavioral health specialist from their own home, and the virtual visits also open up access to many more providers across the country – especially if you live in a rural area with few options.
“There is a real shortage of behavioral health specialists,” says Bess, who says telehealth has been very helpful to provide access to child psychologists and child psychiatrists for people throughout the country.
“It eliminates geography as a barrier – the network becomes regional or national in scope rather than just local providers,” says Wojcik.
Teladoc generally charges $90 or less for a visit with a licensed therapist, or $229 or less for the first visit with a psychiatrist, and $99 or less for ongoing visits. These services may be covered by your insurance with lower co-pays.
Help with other types of care and management
Insurers and employers are expanding telehealth into many other types of care, such as offering virtual visits for dermatology, weight-management programs, diabetes care management, medical decision support, sleep management, cardiac care management, and prenatal care and coaching, according to the Business Group on Health.
Expect to see more growth in services that are expanding into virtual visits while people stay home during the coronavirus pandemic, such as physical therapy, speech and occupational therapy, and chronic disease management. “It will allow for better continuous care,” says Pat Keran, vice president of product and innovation at UnitedHealthcare.
Source: US News