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.
“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.