Published in Health Care
Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan worked with American Well to unveil a telemedicine service to members, starting July 1. The service will allow members online access to a doctor for primary care virtual visits. Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan worked with American Well to unveil a telemedicine service to members, starting July 1. The service will allow members online access to a doctor for primary care virtual visits. Courtesy Photo

Insurers embrace telemedicine to offer convenient services, cost savings

BY Sunday, June 12, 2016 03:08pm

Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan plans to ramp up a telemedicine service that enables members to connect electronically with physicians to discuss minor medical issues.

Beginning July 1, Blue Cross Blue Shield will make the telemedicine product available through Boston-based American Well to employers with fully insured and PPO policies.

Extending the service, which first launched Jan. 1 for members of HMO subsidiary Blue Care Network and as an option for self-funded employers, will make telemedicine available for some 2 million Blue Cross Blue Shield members. That’s about half of the total membership for the insurer, which targets to raise telemedicine access to 80 percent to 90 percent of members within two years.

Offering online access to doctors for primary-care virtual visits when a member’s own doctor is unavailable, such as late at night or on a weekend, came after Blue Cross Blue Shield implemented a major change in reimbursement policy at the beginning of 2016. The state’s largest health insurer now covers members’ virtual doctor visits using American Well or via another qualified telemedicine platform.

“We’re taking off the barriers,” said Theresa Tew, product strategy manager for Blue Cross Blue Shield. “We’re very interested in having our members connect with a doctor when they need it.”

That interest is twofold: It reduces costly visits to a hospital emergency room or urgent care center for something that is readily treated in a lesser setting, and it meets the growing demands of consumers who want the ability to electronically connect with care providers at their convenience.

The latter is especially the case for the highly connected millennial generation who grew up in the modern digital age.

“Employers and consumers expect this to be an integrated benefit, just like anything else,” Tew said.

Blue Cross Blue Shield quietly rolled out the telemedicine service in January and worked to make certain that the platform functioned properly before extending it.

Use has been “very low,” said Janet Fava, vice president of product development at Blue Cross Blue Shield. The insurer now plans to increase promotion to generate far greater awareness of the telemedicine service. That includes reaching out directly to employers to encourage their employees to enroll to use American Well’s platform.

EXPANDING SERVICES

Surveys indicate that employers across the nation are embracing telemedicine as an employee benefit.

In the most recent survey of large employers by the National Business Group on Health, 74 percent of respondents said they intended to offer a telemedicine benefit in 2016, versus 48 percent in 2015.

An annual survey by benefits consultant Mercer found telemedicine was now offered by 44 percent of “jumbo” employers, or those with 20,000 or more employees, which compares to 34 percent last year. Telemedicine is now a benefit at 30 percent of large employers that responded to the Mercer survey and employ 500 or more people, compared to 18 percent last year.

On the consumer side, Blue Cross Blue Shield hopes to have 6 percent to 10 percent of its members use the telemedicine platform annually, Tew said. The service costs $49 per virtual visit, versus $80 to $100 for an office visit to a doctor or potentially much more if someone goes to the ER or an urgent care center for the treatment of a minor condition.

At the same time, Blue Cross Blue Shield wants many more doctors within its care network to complement their practices by offering telemedicine services, either through American Well or another platform.

However, the insurer is not yet ready to provide incentives for physicians to sign on, Fava said.

“We have to get this started and moving forward,” she said. “Some of the providers are not particularly ready because they don’t have capacity. They don’t have the technology. So we’re trying to bring the providers along and we’re still planning for a lot of that work over the next year or two.

“The bigger the network of providers we have that can offer this type of service, especially providers in Michigan, the better we’ll all be with this.”

ADDRESSING CONCERNS

Extending American Well to more Blue Cross Blue Shield members follows the quick emergence of telemedicine over the last few years.

In West Michigan, Grand Rapids-based Spectrum Health last October launched MedNow, its own telemedicine service that connects patients with a Spectrum doctor for online video visits. The system is aimed for patients with minor or low-acuity medical conditions such as a cold, the flu or a rash. Spectrum Health also uses MedNow for follow-up virtual visits with medical specialists and at-home monitoring for patients with chronic medical conditions.

MedNow has recorded visits with more than 7,000 users, about 2,300 of whom used it to consult with primary care doctors, said Joe Brennan, director of operations for MedNow. The use of the telemedicine service has increased 250 percent since December, and Brennan expects “tremendous growth” to continue as awareness of MedNow grows.

MedNow initially was met with some apprehension from physicians who have been in practice for several years and were wary of using a new delivery method for patient care that differs from how they were trained, Brennan said.

That has since faded, he said.

“Now that they’ve used the technology and have seen patients, they’re much more comfortable,” Brennan said. “The last barrier we have is awareness and letting people know this service is available.”

Blue Cross Blue Shield started its telemedicine initiative by focusing on primary care virtual visits and plans to expand it to new uses over time. Fava said Blue Cross could explore potential uses including virtual visits to conduct routine health assessments, to counsel people with chronic medical conditions such as diabetes, or for behavioral health consultations.

The insurer may also work with employers to install America Well kiosks at their businesses for employees to use if they need to consult with a doctor during work hours, Tew said.

“The technology’s going to get better,” Fava said. “So we’re exploring and looking at new innovations for technology.

“People want convenience.” 

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