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Insurance focused on virtual visits? The pros and cons of a new twist in health plans

Julie Appleby, Kaiser Health News, Kaiser Health News on

Published in Business News

At the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, people often relied on telemedicine for doctor visits. Now, insurers are betting that some patients liked it enough to embrace new types of health coverage that encourages video visits — or outright insists on them.

Priority Health in Michigan, for example, offers coverage requiring online visits first for nonemergency primary care. Harvard Pilgrim Health Care, selling to employers in Connecticut, Maine and New Hampshire, has a similar plan.

“I would describe them as virtual first, a true telehealth primary care physician replacement product,” said Carrie Kincaid, vice president of individual markets at Priority Health, which launched its plans in January as an addition to more traditional Affordable Care Act offerings.

The often lower-premium offerings capitalize on the new familiarity and convenience of online routine care. But skeptics see a downside: the risk of overlooking something important.

“There’s a gestalt of seeing a patient and knowing something is not right, such as maybe picking up early on that they have Parkinson’s,” or listening to their heart and discovering a murmur, said Dr. David Anderson, a cardiologist affiliated with Stanford Health Care in Oakland, California. He said online medicine is a great tool for follow-up visits with established patients but is not optimal for an initial exam.

When enrolling in one of the new plans, patients are encouraged to select an online doctor, who then serves as the patient’s first point of contact for most primary care services and can make referrals for in-person care with an in-network physician, if needed. It’s possible patients never meet their online doctor in person.

 

Many insurers offering virtual-first plans hire outside firms to provide medical staff. The physicians may hold licenses in several states and not be located nearby. Insurers say participating online doctors can access patients’ medical information and test results through the insurers’ electronic medical records system or those of the third-party online staffing firm. What might prove tricky, experts warn, is transferring information from physicians, clinics or hospitals outside of an insurer’s network. Sharing patient information via EMRs is challenging even for doctors operating under traditional insurance plans with in-person visits — especially moving data between different health systems or specialty practices.

The virtual-first concept was so new that Priority Health called those enrolling this year to ensure they understood how it worked. “If people were more comfortable with brick-and-mortar, they should choose other options,” Kincaid said, adding that the plans have drawn 5,000 enrollees since January, a number she hopes will double next year.

Other versions of telehealth plans are available, offered by big names such as Humana, Kaiser Permanente, Oscar and UnitedHealthcare. Some emphasize but don’t require that primary care starts online. Some are aimed directly at consumers. Others are sold to employers.

Oscar Virtual Care health plans, sold in several states including Texas, Florida and New York, allow patients to choose between online or in-person services.

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