UnitedHealth doubles down on telemedicine with app in employer-sponsored plans

By | October 11, 2019

Dive Brief:

  • The country’s largest private payer is rolling out a new virtual care app for the more than 27 million Americans covered in its employer-sponsored health plans.
  • The new UnitedHealthcare app gives users access to a practitioner via mobile device or computer. Beneficiaries can use it to schedule and conduct a virtual visit with a doctor. Physicians can diagnose a range of conditions during the visit and prescribe and send medications to local pharmacies for pickup.
  • The app will be free for the majority of people enrolled in the Minnetonka, Minnesota-based payer’s employer-sponsored plans, but consumers may have to pay additional out-of-pocket costs for telemedicine services depending on their plan and state requirements.

Dive Insight:

The ROI of telehealth is uncertain, and though interest among consumers and physicians is climbing, adoption has remained low due to patient preference for in-person visits and regulatory barriers. But that hasn’t stopped payers and providers, looking for an inexpensive way to keep tabs on beneficiaries and renew focus on preventive care, from being bullish on virtual care offerings.

The National Business Group on Health estimates 51% of large employers plan to implement more virtual care tools for their employees next year.

“More and more are actually changing their plan designs to make the visits either free or have a small co-pay to it,” Pat Keran, UnitedHealthcare’s VP of product and innovation, told Healthcare Dive. “It’s a growing number that are really looking at supplementing some of the costs associated with it.”

Keran declined to break down how many consumers would have to pay additional costs for the virtual care visits.

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The app, which will eventually replace an older app, allows users to access their health plan ID and email it to providers, manage prescriptions, shop for care for roughly 800 medical services by service, condition, provider and facility, locate nearby healthcare facilities and view the status of their deductible and out-of-pocket spending.

“Besides the urgent care availability that we have, we also have behavioral health that’s available via virtual visit,” Keran said. “As we start really looking at how to build out our telemedicine program here, we’re going to start looking into the things around primary care, around specialty care and around long-term care.”

The insurer currently contracts with telehealth vendors Teladoc, American Well and Doctor on Demand to offer virtual visits, though it is in talks to partner with local providers.

Most payers offer some sort of telemedicine benefit to their beneficiaries — it makes sense from a financial perspective. According to a year-long study from Humana, telemedicine visits were paid out at an average of $ 38, compared to the $ 114 cost of a face-to-face consultation with a clinician.

And patients seem to like the access. Between 2015 and 2016, 83% of consumers were moderately or extremely satisfied with their video-based telehealth services, according to a study by lobby America’s Health Insurance Plans.

Some of the barriers to virtual care have been dropping. The Department of Veterans Affairs, TRICARE and Medicaid have all been making telehealth services more available. And, though Medicare is more sluggish, Congress has extended Medicare telehealth care access to people with chronic conditions to go into effect in 2020.

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CMS also finalized a rule in April giving Medicare Advantage plans more flexibility to pay for telemedicine benefits for people treated in their homes in 2020.

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