Dramatic Rise in Telehealth Use Enabled by Blue Cross Incentives, Support

By: Julie Bitely

telehealth sees rapid growth during COVID-19 crisis

In a matter of weeks, the COVID-19 pandemic changed how we live, work and socialize. It has also drastically changed the way people receive health care services.

As people put off care to avoid potential exposure at in-person office visits, HIPAA privacy rules were temporarily relaxed so that more health care providers could get access to tools to offer services through telehealth. These virtual visits let doctors and specialists provide appointments through audio and video channels, including phones, computers and tablets.

As it became clear that rapid telehealth adoption was necessary so members wouldn’t go without care, Blue Cross teams mobilized quickly to help providers and ensure continued access to care. Although telehealth has been covered by Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan since 2002, the social distancing necessary to stop the spread of COVID-19 led to broader acceptance and adoption by doctors and patients alike. It also meant doctors could continue to deliver care when and where patients needed it.

“Having a telehealth option for my patients during the COVID-19 crisis provided me with an immediate solution to ‘see’ my patients,” said Dr. Joseph Gorz, a family care physician who owns Neighborhood Primary Care in Lake Orion.

Blue Cross’ “tremendous leadership” helped providers adopt telehealth on broad scale.

Like Gorz, many providers quickly expanded their telehealth capabilities. In a 4-week timespan, the percent of primary care physicians and behavioral health providers offering virtual appointments increased from about 10% to more than 80%. Blue Cross’ paid claims for telehealth services rose more than 3,000% from Dec. 2019 to March 2020.

“This has been a huge win that’s come out of the pandemic,” said Tom Leyden, director, Value Partnership Programs, BCBSM. “It’s a win for the providers because it’s helped them stay financially afloat, and it also propels them into the future. It’s a win for our members to get care during the pandemic, and it’s a win for Blue Cross because it ensures member access to physicians.”

In March, Blue Cross announced incentives totaling $5 million for members of our Physician Group Incentive Program, with rewards for telehealth adoption. To encourage members to get virtual care, Blue Cross offered a $0 copay for medical and behavioral health telehealth through June 30.

“Blue Cross has really shown tremendous leadership in the state,” said Dr. Kim Coleman, chief medical officer, United Physicians, one of Michigan’s largest independent physician organizations representing nearly 2,500 providers.

Coleman credits quick action by Blue Cross for keeping physician practices afloat as patient visits fell. Blue Cross decisions to reimburse telehealth appointments using technologies that aren’t HIPAA-compliant such as Zoom and FaceTime and allowing audio-only visits for patients without access to technology were “a lifeline for these practices,” Coleman explained.

“The fact that Blue Cross was able to step up and offer incentives to support telehealth adoption did relieve some of the burden,” agreed Gorz. “Adding those incentives, when every penny literally counted, was crucial.”

In addition to supporting private practices and provider organizations with incentives, Blue Cross and the Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan Foundation also joined forces with other funders to support telehealth expansion at health clinics serving uninsured and underinsured patients, to ensure their health care needs were also met.

This post originally appeared on MiBluesPerspectives, Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan’s news blog.

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