During the COVID-19 crisis, telehealth services changed the way millions of patients receive care for their physical and mental health. While health insurance providers promoted telehealth access before COVID-19, during the pandemic it was the single biggest area for growth. Health insurance providers prioritized telehealth because it helped enable access to care for those in need, and in response nearly 70 percent of health care providers have expanded their use of telehealth.
While adoption and satisfaction with telehealth have surged, long-term access to telehealth services remains a challenge for too many, particularly America’s senior and historically underserved communities. Health insurance providers are taking significant steps to eliminate these disparities in access and ensure that telehealth and other forms of virtual care are supported and expanded so there is affordable access to care for all patients.
Health insurance providers are breaking down barriers for telehealth because it helps lower patient costs, increases the availability of care providers, provides patients with more choices of doctors and clinicians, and improves quality of care.
- Some of the shared cost-saving benefits of telehealth include better management of chronic diseases, eliminating travel costs, and fewer or shorter hospital stays.
- In a recent study, patients who utilized telehealth to see providers during urgent care visits were able to avoid unnecessary tests, saving an average of $118 for each episode of care.
- According to a J.D. Power white paper on telehealth adoption and usage, “if providers can reduce emergency department visits by 1 percent by increasing telehealth adoption, the average emergency department savings would be $101,920,000 annually.”
Increasing Availability of Providers and Providing Patients with More Choices
- Telehealth expands patient access to a wider variety of providers and specialists. Increased access to telehealth continues to enable patients to receive the care and support they need – spanning services like mental health care, regular check-ups for patients with chronic conditions, one-off urgent care needs like evaluating a rash or help with determining whether in-person care is needed, behavioral health services for children with developmental disorders, and more.
- This helps patients who wish to receive services from providers with particular expertise and/or from someone of a similar gender, race, or background to align with their unique circumstances, particularly when they may be difficult to find or see locally.
- And telehealth can improve access to care, especially in rural areas where a patient can connect with a doctor within seconds, rather than driving long distances for an office visit.
Improving Quality of Care
- In a study of telehealth use by Massachusetts General Hospital, 83 percent of study participants said the quality of care via telehealth was the same or better than an in-person visit. And two-thirds of participants rated their visit as a 9 or 10 on a 10-point scale.
- According to a survey from J.D. Power, the overall customer satisfaction score for telehealth services is 860 (on a 1,000-point scale), which is among the highest of all health care, insurance, and financial services industry studies.
Numerous policy changes have been made during the COVID-19 crisis to strengthen and improve both use of and access to virtual care. It is critical to sustain these changes or make them permanent beyond the COVID-19 public health emergency. The U.S. Senate can take immediate steps to achieve this by voting on the House-passed bill to extend Medicare telehealth flexibilities until 2024. Without Senate action to extend telehealth flexibilities, access to telehealth services will be diminished for millions of America’s seniors.
Policymakers at the federal and state level can support telehealth as an essential pathway to increase affordability, quality, and choice for Americans. They must recognize its value by allowing for telehealth to be counted as another site of care, and visits should be counted towards network adequacy requirements, risk adjustment calculations, and quality measurement. Rolling back these policies will set virtual care back and will restrict convenient access to care for many patients.
Health insurance providers will continue to strongly advocate for solutions that strengthen telehealth—both during COVID-19 and beyond.