Telehealth as a Benefit

telemhealthAs employers are seeing their costs for employee health benefits increase, they are seeking ways to improve the cost-effectiveness of these services.  Overall employee health benefit costs have been predicted to increase by 6% in 2017, which is significantly higher than the general inflation rate of 0.8% and the 2.5% that employee compensation increased in the 12 months leading up to June of 2016.  An approach that is growing in popularity is offering telehealth services as a benefit; one source reports that in 2016, 70% of employers offered these services to their employees, with that number expected to increase to 90% in 2017, and to 100% by 2020.

Telehealth allows patients to connect with healthcare professionals via phone or video stream (e.g. Skype), offering both cost savings and convenience.  Towers Watson estimates that, if all employees and dependents in the U.S. utilized telemedicine to its fullest potential, an annual savings of $6 billion could be realized.  Telehealth visits can also reduce the amount of time employees must miss work for in-person appointments for non-threatening healthcare needs (for themselves or their children), can provide an avenue for supporting and monitoring chronic health issues such as diabetes, and can offer a more accessible option for careers that involve significant travel.

Despite how widespread the offering of telehealth is, it is not very widely used; Towers Watson found that per-member utilization was less than 10%.  One roadblock to the usage of these services is simply a lack of readiness on the part of patients to embrace this new paradigm for their health care – getting their foot in the door is the challenge.  Employers must help their employees fully understand the concept of telehealth – how it works, what it can be used for, etc. – information that can be integrated into a company’s HR offerings to the employee.  Employees must also have some level of comfort with technology to successfully adapt to this mode of treatment.

As employees need to understand what telehealth offers, so do employers need to understand the regulations surrounding its use.  There are licensing requirements affecting which providers can be used for these services (including physically being in the same state as the patient, which is a consideration for companies with offices in multiple states), and there are state-specific regulations about whether initial exams must be performed in-person before medications may be prescribed, for instance.

There is a wealth of possibilities as this field grows.  Some insurance companies are directly offering telehealth benefits; Anthem Blue Cross/Blue Shield’s program provides video access to physicians able to diagnose, treat, and write prescriptions for non-emergent healthcare needs, 24/7, at a cost of $49 per visit, whether the patient is a member of their plan or not.  Doctor on Demand is a third-party vendor that offers unlimited annual access to its web-based application, with larger employers paying around $120 per employee, and smaller employers paying $200-300 per employee, or a per-session fee of $30-50 that can be paid by the employer or employee.

Addressing the rising cost of healthcare benefits will necessitate a good dose of creativity and flexibility on the part of both employers and employees.  In addition to telehealth, concepts such as nurse coaching may come into play more and more as the focus shifts to more economical formats for healthcare delivery.

Contributed by Holly Valovick -QLK