Insurance focused on virtual visits? The pros and cons of a new twist in health plans

The virtual-first concept was so new that Priority Health called those enrolling this year to ensure they understood how it worked. “If people were more comfortable with brick-and-mortar, they should choose other options,” Kincaid said, adding that the plans have drawn 5,000 enrollees since January, a number she hopes will double next year.

Other versions of telehealth plans are available, offered by big names such as Humana, Kaiser Permanente, Oscar and UnitedHealthcare. Some emphasize but don’t require that primary care starts online. Some are aimed directly at consumers. Others are sold to employers.

Oscar Virtual Care health plans, sold in several states including Texas, Florida and New York, allow patients to choose between online or in-person services.

“These are not virtual-only plans,” said Marianna Spanos, an Oscar vice president and general manager of its virtual care division. “You can always opt to see a more traditional provider.”

Although Kaiser Permanente uses its own in-house medical staff, most insurers rely on contracted physicians, mental health therapists and other staff members, often provided by San Francisco-based Doctor on Demand.

Doctor on Demand launched in 2013, aimed at individual consumers. Starting with a Humana contract in 2019, it has since expanded to offer staffing for several other insurers. The company, which has its own electronic medical records system, hires a range of primary care, mental health and other medical providers. Physicians must be board-certified. Pay is partly based on how many patients they see, and there is no upper limit. Some want to work part time, for example, and many work from home.

In general, virtual-first health plans may carry lower premiums or provide such financial incentives as no copays for online visits. All boast that members can get appointments quickly, sometimes within minutes. Patients with serious problems are assisted in arranging emergency help. If online physicians determine patients need a blood test, immunization or a visit with a specialist, they refer them to a local practice, clinic or specialist within the insurer’s network.

As a strategy to contain costs, think HMO 2.0.

“There’s more control over the patient interaction and where they get referred,” said Sabrina Corlette, a research professor and co-director of the Center on Health Insurance Reforms at Georgetown University.

Still, patients should be aware that some of these plans may allow a brick-and-mortar visit only if their virtual doctor, who may have never examined them in person, deems it necessary.

Skeptics note that many circumstances demand in-person care. One recent study estimated about 66% of primary care visits required it. For example, it’s impossible to check reflexes and difficult to examine tonsils for infection virtually.

Patients in some programs, including Harvard Pilgrim’s, are sent kits that can include devices like blood pressure cuffs and thermometers — though at-home medical measuring devices are often not as accurate as those used in offices. Online physicians may also ask a patient to feel for swollen lymph nodes, shine a light into their throat while on camera or take other actions to help the physician diagnose a problem.

Kincaid, at Priority Health, noted that Doctor on Demand also sets protocols on children’s wellness visits, which it says must be done in person.

“It’s important for children’s wellness visits to get accurate height and weight measures and immunizations,” Kincaid said.



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