This arranged photo shows a UnitedHealth Group health insurance card in a wallet in this image illustration dated October 14, 2019.
Lucy Nicholson | Reuters
UnitedHealthcare is expanding its telemedicine offering for employers to include a new virtual basic care service that gives doctors access to routine visits on their phones or computers who pay little or no co-payments.
“Before Covid, we worked with big primary care practices … and it was really difficult to get an admission. Patients wanted it, but doctors were really uncomfortable with the whole idea of virtually seeing patients,” said Dr. Donna O’Shea, Chief Medical Officer, Population Health Management at UnitedHealthcare, the health insurance arm of the UnitedHealth Group.
Doctors have been slow to introduce telemedicine because the reimbursement rates for virtual visits were often lower than for personal care. That has changed because of Covid. Government Medicare plans for seniors and private health insurers increased reimbursement rates during the pandemic shutdown last year, and inevitably increased adoption of virtual care by doctors and patients.
Now UnitedHealth is betting that patients are ready to take the next step towards a more convenient option.
“We know 25% of people don’t have a basic provider … maybe it’s really difficult to get out of work (to see one) and maybe if it were easier for you, you might have one,” said O’Shea .
The pandemic has also fueled the race for entry into virtual basic services. Telemedicine provider Teladoc Health has tried to move beyond one-time urgent care visits to a basic care model for employers. So is Amazon, which is investigating the expansion of its in-house Amazon Care virtual health program for employees in Washington state to include a service for other employers.
While non-traditional companies like Amazon can bring expertise to consumer engagement, that is not enough to gain a foothold with employers, said Steven Shill, national director of the BDO Center for Healthcare Excellence & Innovation.
“There must be complementary skills and part of the complementary skills must be healthcare,” Shill said, adding that half of the healthcare executives surveyed by BDO plan to consider new partnerships this year.
“I think these partnerships will come and go until you have the right partners together,” he said.
UnitedHealth is working with telehealth provider Amwell, who will provide the platform for virtual care and clinical services through its medical group. The virtual primary care program will initially be available to employers in 11 states, including Colorado, Texas, Maryland and Washington, DC.
Editor’s Note: This story has been updated to reflect that Donna O’Shea is Chief Medical Officer for Population Health Management at UnitedHealthcare, the health insurance arm of UnitedHealth Group.