Speaking to a doctor via video chat may be a hard sell for some, but more and more employers are looking to it as one potential healthcare solution.
At the 2015 Benefits Forum and Expo in October, quite a few of the sessions were dedicated to telemedicine and how employers could incorporate it into their health plans. Only in the past 18 months, telehealth implementation by employers has increased by double digit percentages. Toward the end of 2014, 48% of employers offered some sort of telehealth option, according to the National Business Group on Health. In 2016, 74% of employers will offer telehealth options.
Some employers may feel confused about the compliance, payment structures and accessibility of these programs — or why these programs have surged now. See what we found below.
Growth coming from technology
Where did telehealth originate?
The idea of telehealth or telemedicine — essentially, that doctors and patients can interact and exchange information while not being in the same office, usually through digital means today — emerged around 40 years ago, according to the American Telemedicine Association (ATA). But the technology that makes such interaction legitimately accessible really only came about in the last couple of years.
"We all pretty much walk around with technology that can connect to the top experts in the world ... and with good resolution," said Gary Capistrant, senior director of public policy at ATA. Devices that can create and play quality video are ubiquitous these days, and that's been key to telehealth's growing popularity.
Better videoconferencing tech has also helped telehealth vendors combat legal concerns in certain states, as some require face-to-face interactions between physicians and patients in order for it to be covered by insurance.
"It is somewhat disruptive to the current system," Mark Rodrigues, health risk solutions consultant for Lockton Companies, told HR Dive. "With all of the new people we have that are now covered, with changes to the ACA and the like, we need a change in how we are delivering healthcare, or we won't have enough practitioners to do it."
Telehealth has also helped companies provide their employees access to specialists who may not work close to employees who may be in need, therefore allowing workers to stay on the job longer, Capistrant added. But while innovation in the healthcare space has moved fairly quickly in the past decade or so, it has taken time to catch up to other large but necessary institutions, such as banks, concerning accessibility.
"The healthcare world is pretty much still a 9-5, Monday through Friday operation, which doesn't match employee need," Capistrant said. "The bigger question is why has this taken so long?"
Well, it's starting to catch up. Telehealth is better integrated with employer healthcare benefit plans now, making it quite easy to implement at an employee level, Karen Marlo, vice president of the National Business Group on Health (NBGH), told HR Dive.
Who uses it and why
Employers and employees alike tend to appreciate telemedicine due to its convenience and less intrusive nature, Capistrant said. Companies that have many individuals who live a long distance from the care that they need — often blue-collar employers in manufacturing — tend to take particular advantage of telehealth services, Rodrigues said. Manufacturing companies have many employees who do not want to have to take time off the clock to go to the doctor, making telehealth even more convenient.
Rodrigues also suggests that if a company has a high rate of employees who go to the ER for more common maladies, telemedicine can help solve that high-cost issue.
"One of the ways that is useful for employers is contracting with a provider for direct-to-consumer care," Capistrant said. "Colds, ear aches, mental health issues such as depression ... a lot of that can be done or managed by telehealth means."
In most states, typical healthcare benefit plans will cover telehealth consults, or at least subsidize them, Rodrigues said. Even for employees who have a high deductible health plan, tele-consults tend to be cheaper than in-person visits, at about $40 a session. The ways each health plan structures tele-consults vary. Employers that utilize Medicare in any of their planning should know, however, that it tends to be a spotty payer of telehealth services, Capistrant said.
The drawbacks and legal concerns
Generally employees seem to enjoy the telehealth programs once they use them — though engagement, like with other HR initiatives, is a common problem, Marlo said. Additionally, it can be hard to see what the benchmark needs to be for employee engagement with telehealth, since employees shouldn't completely replace in-person physician visits for everything. Some employers may have fears about employees getting the accurate, quality care they need — but many see it as an excellent alternative to going to the ER (for non-emergencies, of course) or doing nothing at all.
Legally, licensing has been an issue for providers of telehealth and employers. Providers must be licensed at both ends of an encounter, which can be an issue for multi-state employers and multi-state health plans, Capistrant said. However, providers are currently working on a model that would work similarly to how the interstate laws function between states, allowing expedited licenses in certain states but still requiring licensees to pay a fee.
Many states require that an individual has an in-person visit with a physician before they can be prescribed any sort of medicine, Rodrigues said, though this law is becoming less and less common.
But overall, HR managers are generally comfortable with telemedicine from a compliance perspective.
"I think the major thing is that they want their employees to have a good experience and get quality care," Marlo said. "It is another alternative way for employees to have access to care."