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Excellus to offer telemedicine option in health plans

By Eric Reinhardt


DeWITT, N.Y. — Excellus BlueCross BlueShield on Tuesday announced it will offer a telemedicine option to all privately insured and Medicare Advantage members in 2017.

Excellus will use MDLIVE as its telemedicine platform beginning Jan. 1, 2017, the health insurer said in a news release. The nonprofit hosted a news conference about telemedicine on Tuesday morning. 

Rochester–based Excellus is Central New York’s largest health insurer.

MDLIVE is a Sunrise, Florida–based “telehealth provider of online and on-demand health-care delivery services,” according to its website.

Telemedicine, or remote medical care, involves the patient and the provider when they’re in separate locations but linked by telephone or a secure two-way video connection.

Telemedicine services are available to anyone with or without health insurance, Excellus said in its release, but also noted carriers are building “easy-to-use” platforms into most health-insurance offerings throughout upstate New York. 

Excellus predicts Upstate New Yorkers will “embrace” telemedicine as an alternative to getting care for minor conditions next year and expects Upstate residents to use that option “more than 50,000 times by the year 2018.”

Relying on national studies, local projections and preliminary results from a pilot program of its own employees’ use of telemedicine, the health insurer contends a surge in the use of telemedicine is likely to begin in 2017 and “grow rapidly every year through the remainder of this decade and beyond.”

“Historical” advances in clinical decision-making; the evolution of customer-friendly technology applications for smartphones, tablets and computers; and more people having high-deductible health policies are the “most frequently” cited reasons driving the trend. 

Excellus also used its Tuesday announcement to say that it will invest in a public-education campaign that presents telemedicine as an “alternative to potentially preventable” emergency-room visits.

“Ideal medical care is when a patient sees his or her physician face-to-face, and both know and trust each other, but in our rapidly changing and fast-paced world, some of those face-to-face visits can’t always take place,” Dr. Richard Lockwood, VP and chief medical officer of Excellus’s Central New York region, said in the release.

Telemedicine is an “alternative” that is in place and will gain popularity across the country, Lockwood added.

“It allows people in rural areas to see specialists in urban settings. It serves the needs of patients who find it difficult to get out of work to see their doctor when they need to address a problem for themselves or their children. And, it’s a speedy alternative to going to an urgent-care center or even the hospital emergency room for minor medical conditions.”

MDLIVE pilot
In the Excellus release, Lockwood cited an adage that you should be skeptical of chefs who don’t taste their own cooking. 

“With that in mind, Excellus BlueCross BlueShield ran a pilot program that encouraged our employees to register themselves and family members with MDLIVE. The responses we received for getting this benefit and using it were overwhelmingly positive,” said Lockwood. 

Among registered employee users, about 8 percent made use of the telemedicine option. 

More than half said they would have gone to an urgent-care center or the emergency room for a minor condition if the telemedicine option hadn’t been available. 

Relying on data from the New York State Department of Health labeled “potentially preventable” emergency room visits, Excellus reported earlier this year that 10 common conditions represent more than 2 million annual visits to hospital emergency rooms statewide, and nine out of 10 of those could have been avoided or treated elsewhere. 

Of 6.4 million emergency-room visits in 2013, more than 2 million were for common conditions, such as ear or sinus infections and sore throats. 

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