Insurance companies across the U.S. continue to evolve their telemedicine policies in response to the growing coronavirus outbreak. On March 10, Vice President Mike Pence said in a White House meeting that private insurers will cover the cost of coronavirus testing and telemedicine services for patients.
According to a Washington Examiner report, in a meeting involving Pence—recently tapped as the White House coronavirus response coordinator—President Donald Trump, and insurance company executives, the vice president said, “I am pleased to report, as you requested, Mr. President, all the insurance companies here today or before today have agreed to waive all co-pays for coronavirus testing and extend coverage for coronavirus treatment in all their benefit plans.”
Among the meeting's attendees, the Washington Examiner reported, were CEOs from Anthem, UnitedHealthGroup and Humana. The Hill reported that Cigna, Aetna and Blue Cross Blue Shield Association were also present.
Per the Examiner report, Pence also noted that “all private insurance CEOs ‘have also agreed to no surprise billing’ for coronavirus patients getting treatment, and that the costs of receiving telehealth services would fall to insurers rather than patients.”
Prior to the meeting, some private insurers already announced they would be taking such measures. Aetna, a CVS Health company, recently stated that for the next three months, it will offer zero co-pay telehealth visits for any reason.
According to a March 6 announcement, officials said, “Aetna members should use telemedicine as their first line of defense in order to limit potential exposure in physician offices. Cost sharing will be waived for all video visits through the CVS MinuteClinic app, Aetna-covered Teladoc offerings and in-network providers delivering synchronous virtual care (live video-conferencing) for all commercial plan designs. Self-insured plan sponsors will be able to opt-out of this program at their discretion.”
Blue Cross Blue Shield companies around the U.S. have made similar announcements. Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina (Blue Cross NC) last week introduced payment parity for virtual care, saying it will cover telehealth services the same as in-person provider visit for dates of service starting March 6.
As of March 10, news reports estimated that the coronavirus (COVID-19) death toll has reached about 4,000 across the globe, with more than 113,000 infected cases. In the U.S., the death toll has risen to 27. In healthcare media circles, it’s been widely reported over the last few weeks that telehealth could “help triage the sick and keep the worried well out of already-crowded medical facilities.” As a result, the U.S. telehealth industry is preparing for a surge in demand. One prominent company in this space, Teladoc, which provides virtual health services in more than 130 countries, said during the organization’s fourth-quarter and full-year 2019 earnings two weeks ago that it’s expected a larger outbreak of the coronavirus in the U.S. would indeed drive up the company's virtual visits.
Last week, the U.S. House of Representatives passed an $8.3 billion package, which included almost $500 million to expand the use of telehealth. The Telehealth Services During Certain Emergency Periods Act of 2020, which is Division B of the supplemental appropriations bill, would allow the Secretary of Health and Human Services to waive certain requirements during the coronavirus public health emergency to ensure Medicare beneficiaries can receive the care they need at home without unnecessary potential exposure to COVID-19.
It’s important to note that these virtual care services cannot replace in-person tests for coronavirus, but in some cases could prevent avoidable physical trips to the doctor’s office, which could be especially beneficial in communities where the virus is spreading rapidly.
On March 9, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) further touted virtual care as a way to help contain the spread of the virus. In an announcement, CMS Administrator Seema Verma stated that policies over the past year have made virtual check-ins and other services that use telecommunications possible. “With the COVID-19 virus, there is an urgency to expand the use of virtual care to keep the beneficiaries with mild symptoms in their homes while increasing access to their provider’s office,” CMS officials said.
While reimbursement challenges and state licensing obstacles have kept telehealth from exploding to date in the U.S., insurance companies and the government appear to be willing to put those roadblocks aside for now.
Historically, some virtual care companies have found it to be challenging to win over consumers who prefer in-person visits, regardless of condition. But that could be changing, especially in the midst of this outbreak. A recent survey of 1,000 patients from Software Advice, a company that helps businesses navigate the software buying journey, revealed that 84 percent of patients are more likely to choose a provider who offers telemedicine over one who doesn’t.