In the midst of the Coronavirus Pandemic, you might have heard The Trump administration and public-health officials urging consumers to use telehealth services to get remote treatment, fill prescriptions, and get medical attention, rather than running the risk of becoming exposed to the Coronavirus at your local Urgent Care or Primary Care Physician’s office, or running the risk of exposing others. You may be wondering what telehealth is exactly. The Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA) of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services defines telehealth as the use of electronic information and telecommunications technologies to support and promote long-distance clinical health care, patient and professional health-related education, public health and health administration. In layman’s terms, through telemedicine, you can seek medical care from the comfort of your own home, office, or anywhere else you may be. Your virtual physician will have the ability to diagnose you and prescribe you medicine if necessary, and your prescription will be sent to your pharmacy of choice for pick-up.
Now that you know what telehealth is, you might ask how to verify if your insurance covers this service. The big 5 carriers, including BCBS, United Healthcare, Cigna, Aetna and Humana, all offer some form of coverage for telehealth services, but it’s considered a policy-dependent medical services, meaning a richer plan may include telehealth benefits, while a cheaper option may not. To be safe, call the number on the back of your insurance card to learn exactly how telehealth benefits are covered with your particular policy. Be sure to have your ID number ready, and ask the representative for a reference number for the call.
During this time of uncertainty, insurers are encouraging members to seek care through these virtual visits now more than ever in an effort to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Telemedicine has been slow to catch on among physicians and patients, but it tends to be cheaper than an in-person doctor’s visit, and it is covered by most commercial health plans and large employers.
Anthem Blue Cross is ramping up its telemedicine tool, LiveHealthOnline, with an increased number of physicians and health professionals prepared to consult with patients who are concerned about Coronavirus. BCBS of North Carolina is expanding access to virtual visits by paying for telehealth visits at the same rate as an in person visits, which started on Friday, March 6th, 2020.
United Healthcare (UHC) is encouraging members to use Virtual Visit, available through the free United Healthcare app, to assist in answering any general questions or concerns they might have. “Our top priority is the health and well-being of our members and patients – and the safety of those who deliver care. While the situation is dynamic, we are committed to adapting and supporting those we serve.” Dr. Richard Migliori, chief medical officer, United Health Group.
Aetna offers virtual visits through the CVS MinuteClinics, a cash-only service. Aetna also has a telemedicine benefit through Teledoc, which takes most forms of insurance.
“Virtual care options such as video visits can be an effective way to treat viruses from the comport of one’s home, while minimizing exposure to other potential contagious viruses”Aetna Spokesperson
Medicare has temporarily expanded its coverage of telehealth services beyond the current telehealth covered services, to respond to the current Public Health Emergency. According to President Trump, “Medicare patients can now visit any doctor by phone or videoconference at no additional cost, including with commonly used services like FaceTime and Skype.” Previously, telehealth benefits had been restricted to seniors living in rural areas who had already sought care through a particular provider.
As you now know, there is a tremendous advantage of using telehealth services during this time as the world faces the Coronavirus Epidemic, and anytime from a convenience standpoint. But any good thing faces it’s own set of challenges, and telehealth is no exception. Reimbursement is a big challenge for telehealth. There is no guarantee of payment parity between telemedicine and in-person health care. This can defeat the point of telemedicine to reduce health care costs and expand access to services, as well as discourage providers from offering telehealth because there is no guarantee of comparable payment. Also, physician licensing requirements vary state-by-state, making it impossible for physicians to conduct consultations cross-state without obtaining licensing in each state. This also poses a challenge for patients in rural areas with limited access to care.
With all this being said, I would highly encourage everyone in need of non-emergency care during this time to take advantage of telehealth services. We are all doing our part to prevent the spread of COVID-19, and this is one way you can prevent spreading the virus to others, or being exposed to it yourself. I am hopefully that through an event as bad as Coronavirus, some good will come out of it, such as telehealth becoming more widely accepted. I believe this can be a real game changer as we see the benefits telehealth provides, and that it may even lead to payment parity and looser physician licensing requirements, giving telehealth providers the power to practice across-states without additional licensure.