The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has put telemedicine in the spotlight and directed new resources towards this crucial healthcare innovation. Over the past few years, telemedicine has gained traction with forward-thinking growing businesses and benefits brokers as a cost-saving way for employees to get the medical advice they need – without having to miss work to do it. However, many businesses and healthcare professionals have treated it as a handy supplement at best and an unnecessary expense at worst.
But as the nation locks down under quarantine and a trip to the doctor means potentially exposing yourself and others to the risk of infection, telemedicine is coming to light as a critical point-of-care option.
Let’s take a look at why employers should leverage telemedicine to keep their employees healthy and contribute to containment efforts, explore plus the ins-and-outs of getting employees access to telehealth during the outbreak, including:
- Why COVID-19 makes telemedicine more important than ever
- How telemedicine is becoming more accessible due to the outbreak
- How to get your team members the telehealth care they need
Why Telemedicine Is More Important Than Ever
There are almost limitless reasons to use telemedicine during the COVID-19 outbreak. On an individual and societal level, at this point in time our safety relies upon two things: limiting physical interactions through social distancing and preventing the healthcare system from getting overwhelmed. Telemedicine is a powerful tool to facilitate both of these goals.
Quarantine orders and the very real risk of exposure – or exposing others – mean that seeing a healthcare professional in-person should be the option of last resort for you and your employees. Your team members should still get physical assistance if their health condition becomes serious, but telemedicine can minimize the risk of the disease spreading to or from your employees. And given the fear of exposure, telemedicine will likely increase your employees’ access to healthcare in a very real way. People who would otherwise avoid a doctor’s visit for fear of leaving the house will be able to get the care they need.
Telemedicine is also quicker and easier for providers compared to a regular office visit. And it puts a significantly lighter burden on the healthcare system than an urgent-care or emergency-room visit. That means that it can limit the amount of strain that employees put on an already overburdened system, potentially saving lives.
While telemedicine can help employees safely get medical advice for issues not related to COVID-19, it is especially important for employees who suspect that they have the virus to use telemedicine as a first resort. As long as the symptoms are mild, doctors are encouraging home-treatment akin to mild flu. Unless the case is severe and requires urgent attention and physical treatment, telemedicine can resolve employees’ fears and get them the advice they need without causing COVID-19 carriers to go out into the world and potentially spread the disease. And while it is impossible to administer a COVID-19 test remotely, the current limited supply and application of the tests mean that mild cases would not be tested even if employees went to the hospital or doctor’s office.
Telemedicine Is Becoming More Accessible
The medical community and government have recognized the utility of telemedicine in combating the crisis of a rapidly spreading disease and an overwhelmed healthcare system. The good news for individuals and businesses alike is that they are increasing access to telemedicine as a result, generally at reduced or zero cost.
For example, the CMS has expanded Medicare to cover telemedicine and eliminated all requirements regarding the location of both patient and provider. They have also loosened restrictions to allow consultations over platforms such as Skype and FaceTime in addition to formal platforms. Some states have also similarly expanded their Medicaid coverage. While these expansions are unlikely to be directly applicable to your employees if you offer health benefits, it is a strong sign of the general support for telemedicine. And employers should inform their team members of the expansions as they may well have parents or loved ones on Medicare or Medicaid.
States are also starting to mandate that private insurance companies cover telemedicine for all members in the state. Thus far only Massachusetts has implemented the measure but more states will likely join Massachusetts as the situation continues to develop.
In the meantime, many if not most major private insurers are temporarily expanding their telemedicine coverage to address the outbreak. UnitedHealth and Aetna have both extended telehealth coverage to all members and waived co-pays, while Humana has followed suit for urgent-care telemedicine calls. CIGNA has also added the option to make a telemedicine appointment with a CIGNA doctor through their website at no added cost, which increases care but does not waive co-pays for standard telemedicine. As of today, Blue Cross Blue Shield is one of the only major insurers to not expand telemedicine coverage in light of the outbreak, though they have promised to “encourage the use of virtual care and will also facilitate member access and use of nurse/provider hotlines.”
How to Leverage Telemedicine to Get Your Employees The Care They Need
By now, it should be clear that telemedicine isn’t just an added employee benefit but a true necessity during the COVID-19 pandemic. But as with so many issues related to the outbreak, the situation is constantly changing in terms of access to care. So how can you ensure that your employees can take advantage of telemedicine to keep themselves and their communities safe and healthy?
The first thing you should do is to talk to your benefits broker and your insurance provider to evaluate your current telemedicine coverage. You should also ask about any changes that they may have made in light of the current COVID-19 situation. And if your employees aren’t covered, lobby your insurance company to expand their telemedicine coverage and consider shelling out for additional telemedicine coverage, at least temporarily. Also consider the fact that a prescription delivery option makes it easier for employees to follow-up on their telemedicine visit to get the treatment they need without added risk of exposure.
You might also consider making these changes permanent additions to your employee benefits, if they aren’t already. Telemedicine is an effective way to reduce healthcare expenses and health-related absenteeism even when there isn’t an ongoing health crisis.
During this unprecedented health crisis, it can be hard to tell what you should do to protect yourself, your employees, and your business. Telemedicine is emerging as one method that is certain to improve the situation. Talk to your employee benefits broker today to see how you can leverage telemedicine to address the COVID-19 outbreak.