Telemedicine: Can this tool help keep health plan costs under control?

It’s getting more and more difficult to dismiss telemedicine as a healthcare fad that won’t catch among employers.  

But things have changed, and firms are starting to warm up to this option.

For starters, there are fewer barriers in place. One of the greatest obstacles to telemedicine usage has been insurers’ refusal to cover this option.

Now, however, Washington recently became the 24th state that required health plans to reimburse providers for telemedicine services – and others are likely to follow suit.

Plus, prominent insurers – such as Aetna, United Healthcare and Wellpoint/Anthem – are convinced telemedicine is here to stay and are planning accordingly.

$6 billion reasons

Telemedicine generally involves a patient speaking to a physician via a video stream (e.g., Skype) or over the phone for a diagnosis or treatment.

While this option will never replace face-to-face time with a doctor, the potential cost-savings are tremendous.

Telemedicine saves employees on travel waiting time and allows doctors to see patients more efficiently. For employers, the option can not only reduce the expense of unnecessary ER visits, it can also bolster productivity and cut absenteeism.

Telemedicine can save $6 billion annually in U.S. health costs if workers and dependents use the tactic whenever appropriate, according to an analysis by Towers Watson.

Third-party options

The option seems to be catching on, too. In 2014, just 22% of large firms offered this option. But 34% plan to offer it in 2016 or 2017, Towers Watson found.

If you have a tech-savvy workforce that’s likely to respond, talk to your broker about what’s available. Another option: Third-party telemedicine vendors. Services like Doctors on Demand charge on a per-employee or per-session basis and work with all major insurers.

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