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Insurers see financial value in telemedicine services

Anthem, UnitedHealth, Cigna among those that have embraced the technology

Insurers increasingly, albeit slowly, cover telemedicine services for their members in an effort to save money and increase care coordination, reports Managed Care.

"In five years, this will just be a common way people get care," John Jesser, Anthem's vice president of provider engagement and cost of care, told the magazine.

Telemedicine can save insurers money by preventing more expensive services like emergency room visits and hospitalizations. Towers Watson predicted in a 2014 report that telemedicine could save more than $6 billion annually in healthcare costs and estimated that almost 40 percent of employers would include telemedicine in their healthcare coverage, the article states.

Plus, states increasingly push insurance companies to pay for telemedicine, FierceHealthIT previously reported.

Insurers leading the telemedicine trend include Anthem, UnitedHealth and Cigna. Anthem introduced its telemedicine services in 2013 and announced last year that it would include telemedicine in its Medicare Advantage plans in 12 states. So far, about 13 million Anthem members have access to its telehealth services, and almost 20 million will have access by the end of the year, Jesser said.

Anthem pays for video consults, most of which occur on mobile devices, for non-emergency care. The insurer has found that most telemedicine users are busy moms, tech-savvy young adults and travelers.

UnitedHealth, meanwhile, has begun to pay for virtual doctor visits for its self-funded employer plans, and will expand the service to individual plans next year. Its members can make video-based virtual visits anytime using a smartphone, tablet or computer to get medical help for minor conditions, such as bronchitis and sinus infections.

The insurer wants its telemedicine coverage to offer members "access to a network of virtual care providers in a way that is similar to how they access care through traditional bricks and mortar," Karen Scott, UnitedHealth's senior director of product and innovation, told Managed Care.

And Cigna offers online doctor visits for some of its members, allowing them to connect to a doctor via phone or video. The patient's primary care physician then receives details of the telemedicine consult to ensure continuity of care. A virtual visit costs Cigna just $38, while office visits cost between $65 and $85, and urgent care visits cost $160.

To learn more:
- read the article

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CMS expands telehealth payments in proposed physician payment schedule
How health plans can use technology to improve consumer engagement