Insurer UnitedHealthcare has announced that it will expand coverage options for virtual physician visits (telehealth) and, thereby, give people enrolled in self-funded employer health plans online access to a physician via mobile phone, tablet or computer 24 hours a day.
Through the program, UnitedHealthcare will allow patients the opportunity to connect with providers through video-based virtual visits. Plan participants can choose from in-network provider groups then see and speak with a doctor using real-time audio and video technology to obtain a diagnosis and any necessary prescriptions for minor medical needs, including allergies, sinus and bladder infections, bronchitis and other conditions.
Coverage for virtual care provider visits is available now to self-funded employer customers. Coverage will expand to employer-sponsored and individual plans in 2016.
According to a UnitedHealthcare statement, the move was made to aid the program for several reasons, including a shortage of 45,000 primary care physicians, according to the American Association of Medical Colleges, that are able to meet patient needs nationwide.
Additionally, reimbursement for these plans is likely to those in rural and underserved areas receive basic care that they may otherwise not have access to. UnitedHealthcare
The move by the payer to begin reimbursing such services continues to signal a change in the marketplace. More than 10 million consumers directly benefited from using telemedicine last year, according to the American Telemedicine Association. UnitedHealthcare cited a Harris Poll that said more than a quarter of consumers (27 percent) would choose a telehealth visit if the option was available to them.
“UnitedHealthcare is developing telemedicine solutions that enable consumers, especially people who live in rural areas of the country, to access quality, cost-effective healthcare, whether at home or on the go,” said Jeff Alter, CEO of UnitedHealthcare’s Commercial Group business, in a statement. “Consumers can save time and money choosing among quality physician groups from the convenience of their smartphone, tablet or home computer at any time of the day.”
People can access a list of participating virtual-visit care providers through UnitedHealthcare’s website or mobile app where users can review the in-network provider groups and the cost of a virtual visit with each contracted provider group. Users then connect directly to the provider of choice.
Cost per visit varies, but is likely less than $50, UnitedHealthcare said in a statement.
UnitedHealthcare has partnered with Doctor On Demand, Optum’s NowClinic and American Well’s Amwell to provide video-based virtual visits in 47 states and Washington, D.C. UnitedHealthcare said it will add network care providers in the future to further expand choice and access for plan participants.
According to Mike Weissel, executive vice president of Optum Consumer Solutions Group, “We are bringing convenient and quality, cost-effective healthcare directly to consumers, who can access board-certified physicians through our mobile application whenever and wherever they may need care.”