COVID-19 helped usher in the widespread use of telehealth, and now one insurance carrier is offering employers in the Little Rock area a virtual health care plan that touts a premium price that’s about 15% lower than traditional benefit plans.
UnitedHealthcare of Minnetonka, Minnesota, announced the plan, called NavigateNow, last month. It allows members to have a personalized care team and access to 24/7 virtual care services that include behavioral health, urgent care and chronic condition management. The plan also says its members pay no copays for the virtual and in-person primary care and behavioral health visits.
Little Rock is one of nine markets in which the insurer is offering the plan.
One of the reasons for offering the product was “a shortage of primary care providers, especially in rural markets,” Dr. Donna O’Shea, chief medical officer of population health for UnitedHealthcare, told Arkansas Business.
She said that when a patient has a primary care physician who handles the care for patients, the health care costs are lower and the patient’s health improves. “We want to make sure that everyone has access to a primary care provider and health care services that are convenient for them also,” O’Shea said.
During the pandemic, patients turned to seeing their doctors via telehealth to keep appointments as providers canceled in-person visits because of COVID restrictions. Patients are now comfortable with the arrangement, O’Shea said.
“It’s particularly helpful for people who have chronic conditions and need frequent check-ins with their doctors,” she said.
For people without a primary care doctor, a virtual primary care doctor will handle the patient’s care and connect them to specialists. The primary care doctors will know where to send their patients for lab work, for example, “and all of those communications can take place in one platform,” O’Shea said.
NavigateNow policyholders will use the virtual provider group from Optum Care of Eden Prairie, Minnesota, which has more than 50,000 providers and 1,600 facilities across the country.
UntiedHealthcare is projecting a “rapid uptick” in policyholders for the product as patients continue to enjoy the convenience of telehealth services, she said. By the end of next year, it expects to be in more than 25 markets.
The cost for NavigateNow will vary based on several factors, including the company’s size, industry and expected claims, O’Shea said.
Still, not everyone has embraced telehealth. Telehealth “brings with it a set of concerns about safety that you probably don’t have as significantly when you have in-person treatment,” said Stephan Landsman, who along with Michael J. Saks recently wrote “Closing Death’s Door: Legal Innovations to End the Epidemic of Healthcare Harm.” Saks is a regents professor at the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law and Department of Psychology at Arizona State University.
Landsman spoke to Arkansas Business about telehealth in general and not UnitedHealthcare’s product.
Landsman, a law professor at DePaul College of Law in Chicago, said that while he supports telehealth providing increased access to health care for a lower price, “you are also going to have some problems that need to be addressed.”
More than 400,000 Americans die each year because of medical mistakes, which can include missed diagnoses, surgical implements left inside a patient or prescribing the wrong medicine.
Landsman said it’s too early to know if telemedicine will add to medical errors. Many people have been without adequate medical advice and care for so long that having access to health care through telehealth could improve their health, he said.
But if virtual providers don’t keep good records, check on the consequences of the medications they prescribe or fail to follow up with patients, “then you’re going to see an actual rise in that death rate,” he said.
UnitedHealthcare’s O’Shea said requirements for documenting a telehealth visit are the same as if the patient was seen by a doctor in person. “It should be the same medical record,” she said.