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More people using telehealth

Written by Diane Archer

Telehealth is increasingly meeting the needs of people with chronic conditions who cannot easily leave their home in urban areas as well as people who want to avoid leaving work to travel to the doctor for a diagnosis or prescription. With telehealth or telemedicine, people can receive care through the telephone or digitally. Because it is so convenient, more businesses are offering it, more insurers are covering it, and more people are using it.

The National Business Group on Health (NBGH) surveyed 126 large employers, 96 percent of whom said they planned to offer telehealth services to their employees in 2018. In 2013, only 7 percent of these companies offered telehealth to their employees. Employers now believe that telehealth is a valuable benefit that promotes employee satisfaction. It can save people time and possibly money. Though a recent study in Health Affairs reports that telehealth is not saving money. Total annual health care costs today average nearly $14,000 an employee, with the employee typically picking up 30 percent of the cost.

Community health centers are now testing telehealth services as a way to provide virtual primary care to Medicaid patients with chronic conditions who are not willing or able to leave home to get their care. NPR reports that one Medicaid managed care plan in Washington DC. provides patients with a  “a clinic in a suitcase.” Patients get a laptop to connect with a doctor digitally, along with a scale, a blood pressure monitor and virtual stethoscope. The health plan believes that these virtual visits improve patients’ health, have the potential to reduce the frequency of unnecessary ER visits, and save the health care system money.

Medicaid covers some telehealth services today in 48 states. And, most states now require commercial insurers to cover telehealth services in the same ways they cover in-person care. Medicare is behind on telehealth serviceslimiting coverage to areas where it is hard to see a doctor. And, digital doctor visits present a bit of a challenge for older adults since only 58 percent of them are online. Moreover, state licensing restrictions limit the out-of-state care doctors can provide. But, a bill in Congress, the Telehealth Innovation and Improvement Act of 2017, would let Medicare test and cover more telehealth services.

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