Insurers expand telemedicine coverage due to pandemic

Doctors and patients say they hope broader telehealth options are here to stay

Blue Cross Blue Shield of North Carolina headquarters in Durham. N.C.

Nearly four months into the coronavirus pandemic, the virus appears to be picking up steam. According to an analysis conducted by the Wall Street Journal, total cases over the last two weeks have been increasing at a faster rate than normal, leaving many North Carolinians wondering if we’re headed towards another round of Phase One stay-at-home mandates.  

The entire medical community has been significantly impacted by the coronavirus, and many workers within these industries have put their own lives at risk just to care for patients. In addition, social distancing warnings have made many older Americans scared to leave home and made the option of seeking medical care via telehealth services even more attractive. Over the past several months doctors have seen an explosion in telemedicine, with remote patient consultations becoming part of the new normal.

The North Carolina Medical Society recently conducted a statewide survey among its member physicians in order to gauge how quickly practices that didn’t have any telehealth capabilities pre-COVID-19 were now seeing their patients virtually. Their findings revealed that 86% of doctors said they saw none of their patients via telehealth before the pandemic with 1% of doctors saying they saw up to half of their patients this way, whereas today up to 13% of doctors in the state say they are seeing patients virtually, with 16% saying they see up to half of their patients via telehealth. The top five platforms being used by practices are Free, Pro, Zoom Healthcare, FaceTime, and Updox.    

“Most practices told us they would like to maintain this use of telehealth but would like to be reimbursed appropriately for the visits even after the pandemic passes,” said Elaine Ellis, Vice President of Marketing and Communications for the NCMS. “Physician and PA offices have nimbly responded by changing workflows and adopting technology to accommodate this need and 68 percent say they would like to continue this increased use of telehealth after the pandemic is over.”

One area dermatologist agreed. “Telehealth became very important to my group dermatology practice during the Covid-19 quarantine, because it allowed us to continue to care for our patients when we could not be in the office,” said Dr. Kendall Hash, who is with Blue Ridge Dermatology Associates, P.A. “Most insurance companies quickly adapted to the quarantine, as well, by allowing for coverage of virtual appointments. In addition to maintaining continuity of care for our patients, it enabled us to continue to employ our staff during this very difficult time.”

Ellis of the NCMA also pointed out that good broadband connections play an essential role in allowing doctors to be able to effectively offer telehealth. There are currently several bills before the state’s General Assembly that would work to ensure good broadband access is available for medical professionals, especially in some of the more rural areas.

Over the last several months, public and private insurance companies have taken note and are changing the way they cover telemedicine. Back in March, when the coronavirus first forced the nation into hibernation, Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina (Blue Cross NC), which had already been covering some forms of telemedicine for the last two decades, announced it would cover virtual visits done by phone the same as face-to-face visits. The insurer previously required video in order to cover virtual care visits but admitted also allowing for coverage of audio-only care would encourage Americans to stay home and limit their exposure to other potentially infected patients. The insurer’s one caveat is that all virtual visits must be deemed medically necessary and meet certain qualifying criteria.

 “As COVID-19 spreads, Blue Cross NC is working to remove barriers to care for our members,” said Dr. Von Nguyen, vice president of clinical operations and innovations at Blue Cross NC. “Staying home will help prevent the spread of illness and save lives. By covering all types of virtual doctor visits, we hope it will encourage people to get the care they need, when they need it, for the good of all North Carolinians.”

On June 18, Blue Cross NC announced it would be extending this expanded reimbursement policy through the end of 2020, and called on all public and private insurers to follow suit.

 NCMS CEO Robert W. Seligson praised the insurer’s efforts to offer and extend coverage in and around the state and said he hoped others would follow suit. “This quick and wholehearted adoption of telehealth technology offers a path forward to increased access to care once this emergency has passed. We hope all insurers will recognize the opportunity this provides for improving the health of North Carolinians and they will continue and enhance their policies to support use of telehealth.”