In this arranged photo, a UnitedHealth Group health insurance card is seen in a wallet in this picture illustration October 14, 2019.
Lucy Nicholson | Reuters
UnitedHealthcare is expanding its telehealth offerings for employers with a new virtual primary care service that offers access to doctors with low or no co-pays for routine visits on their phones or via computer.
“Prior to Covid, we worked with large primary care practices … and it was really hard to get uptake. Patients wanted it, but doctors were really uncomfortable with the whole idea of seeing patients virtually,” said Dr. Donna O’Shea, chief medical officer at UnitedHealthcare, the health insurance arm of UnitedHealth Group.
Doctors were slow to adopt telemedicine, in part, because reimbursement rates for virtual visits were often lower than for in-person care. That changed due to Covid. Government Medicare plans for seniors, and private health insurers boosted reimbursement rate during last year’s pandemic shutdown, and out of necessity, physician and patient adoption of virtual care soared.
Now, UnitedHealth is betting patients are ready to take the next step for a more convenient option.
“We know that 25% of people don’t have a primary care provider … maybe it’s really hard to leave work (to see one) and maybe you would have one if it was easier for you,” said O’Shea.
The pandemic has also boosted the race to gain a foothold in virtual primary care. Telehealth provider Teladoc Health has looked to move beyond one-time urgent care visits toward a primary care model for employers. So has Amazon, which has explored expanding its in-house Amazon Care virtual health program for workers in Washington state into a service for other employers.
While non-traditional players like Amazon can bring expertise in engaging consumers into the equation, that’s not enough to gain traction with employers said Steven Shill, national leader of consulting firm BDO’s Center for Healthcare Excellence & Innovation.
“There have to be complementary capabilities that come to the table, and part of the complimentary capability has to be healthcare,” said Shill, adding that half of health care executives surveyed by BDO plan to explore new partnerships this year.
“I think these partnerships are going to come and go until you get the right partners together,” he said.
UnitedHealth is partnering with telehealth provider Amwell, which will provide the platform for virtual care as well as the clinical services through its medical group. The virtual primary care program will initially be available for employers in 11 states including Colorado, Texas and Maryland, as well as Washington, DC.