UnitedHealthcare has announced an expansion of telehealth coverage options for virtual physician visits, giving enrollees in self-funded employer health plans secure, online access to a physician via mobile phone, tablet or computer, 24 hours a day.

UCH says it is partnering with three telemedicine companies—Doctor On Demand, Optum’s NowClinic and American Well—to cover visits with a doctor via video technology, just as it would for in-person visits.

Consumers can access a list of participating virtual-visit care providers through UCH’s Health4Me mobile app. From the “Find and Price Care” page, Health4Me users can review the in-network provider groups and the cost of a virtual visit with each contracted provider group.

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A shortage of 45,000 primary care physicians in meeting healthcare needs nationwide makes access to virtual services such as these a more critical alternative for employees, experts say. Last year, more than 10 million consumers directly benefited from using telemedicine, according to the American Telemedicine Association.

“We’ve been talking to the big carriers for a while about their different programs,” says Shari Davidson, vice president at National Business Group on Health. “The real positive is access to care for folks in rural areas, or if there is a shortage of primary care providers.”

NBGH says 48 percent of employers this year are providing telehealth options to employees. Communicating this benefit to employees is key, she adds, in addition to plan design and costs.

In addition, Davidson adds, the use of telehealth technologies saves money for employees. As UHC notes, the cost of a video-based virtual visit is roughly less than $50, compared to costs for similar minor medical needs treated at a doctor’s office ($80), urgent care facility ($160) or emergency room ($650).

“UHC is developing innovative telemedicine solutions that enable consumers, especially people who live in rural areas of the country, to access quality, cost-effective health care, whether at home or on the go,” said Jeff Alter, CEO of UHC’s Commercial Group business. “Consumers can save time and money choosing among quality physician groups from the convenience of their smartphone, tablet or home computer at any time of the day.”

But, Davidson notes, there are a few things to keep in mind, especially when communicating telehealth benefits to employees. For example, as an employee accesses a doctor electronically for an urgent health issue, is his or her primary care physician aware of those diagnoses?

There are also some small utilization hurdles, adds Jennifer Campbell, a health care analyst at NBGH. Getting people to use telehealth options can be challenging. But people are willing, particularly younger generations, she adds, once the benefit is explained to them.

Some employers have made full-service, do-it-yourself medical consultation kiosks available to employees at their site, Davidson says, with full-service video conferencing capability including ultraviolet lights, stethoscope, pulse readers and more.

“There are technologies beyond the smartphone to deploy [these capabilities] at a facility in a private and safe manner,” she adds. “The technology is really becoming impressive.”

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