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Telehealth now mainstream as insurers and state expand access to care

Comprehensive telehealth legislation was an area of focus in Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s 11th State of the State Address.

“The COVID-19 pandemic laid bare the inequities in our healthcare system and showed that telehealth is a critical tool to expand access and lower costs for low-income communities, especially for behavioral health support,” said Cuomo, as he took executive action to expand access to remote care.

Telehealth is when a patient and a provider communicate by audio, video or text messaging.

“The number of telehealth visits soared in 2020 as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Dr. Stephen H. Cohen, senior vice president and chief medical officer at the Rochester-based health plan that includes Univera Healthcare. The plan processed 2.2 million telehealth claims in 2020, compared to 28,529 in 2019. Behavioral health services, including care for mental health and substance use issues, accounted for 43% of telehealth claims in 2020, compared to 25% in 2019.

Most adults in upstate New York (77 percent) have heard of telehealth though less than a third have used it, according to a survey commissioned in late 2020 by Univera. Of those adults who reported using telehealth, 90 percent did so since the outbreak of COVID-19.

Additional survey findings:

The primary reason telehealth is currently used:

Required to use because of COVID – 59%

Convenience – 40%

Preferred to use because of COVID – 34%

Cost of visit – 8%

The most important features of telehealth:

Ability to obtain prescriptions (79%)

Avoid in-person visits (69%)

Cost of visit (58%)

The health plan, including Univera, spent $102 million in 2020 to expand telehealth coverage to all members and waive any member cost-share responsibility for telehealth services, regardless of the medical issue. The insurer increased provider reimbursement rates to help replace some of the revenue lost due to the decline in in-office patient visits. The health plan’s provider relations team trained more than 500 health care providers in the use of telehealth technology and proper claims submission for telehealth visits.

“When seeing a health care provider in person isn’t possible, or preferable, telehealth offers an effective alternative,” said Cohen. “Telehealth is here to stay, and our health plan will continue develop and support ways to increase access to this innovative way to get care.”

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