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State seeks to expand telehealth availability

By Eric Reinhardt (


Excellus survey finds awareness of service    

Loretto’s Program of All-inclusive Care for the Elderly in Central New York (PACE CNY) in August 2019 announced it is offering participants access to a doctor or nurse anytime through ImagineMic, a telehealth program. (FILE PHOTO PROVIDED BY LORETTO)

New York State lawmakers will consider a bill to “expand and improve access to telehealth for all.”

The proposal, which Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced Jan. 10, was part of his State of the State address delivered the following day. 

At the same time, a survey from Excellus BlueCross BlueShield found that most adults in upstate New York have heard of telehealth but many still haven’t used it despite a sharp rise in telehealth visits during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The pandemic “laid bare the inequities” in our health-care system and showed that telehealth is a “critical tool” to expand access and lower costs for low-income communities, especially for behavioral-health support. During the crisis, Cuomo took executive action to expand access to remote care, and these proposals “codify and build on those successful reforms,” his office said. 

In partnership with the Reimagine New York Commission, Cuomo proposed telehealth reform to help New Yorkers take advantage of telehealth tools and address “existing roadblocks.” The reforms would address key issues like adjusting reimbursement incentives to encourage telehealth, eliminating outdated regulatory prohibitions on the delivery of telehealth, removing outdated location requirements, addressing technical unease among both patients and providers through training programs, and establishing other programs to incentivize “innovative” uses of telehealth. 

“While New York State has been on the cutting edge of promoting telehealth for its residents, the adoption of telehealth by both patients and providers has been slow,” Cuomo said. “COVID-19 has changed not only the way we live, but the way healthcare providers support their patients, especially in regard to mental health. New Yorkers have adapted throughout 2020, but it is time to push telehealth to the next level in New York State and fully integrate it into our existing healthcare system. These proposals will better allocate our healthcare and technological resources for the 21st century.” 

During the pandemic, use of telehealth by New Yorkers jumped, according to Martha Pollack, co-chair of the Reimagine New York Commission telehealth working group and president of Cornell University. “We can unlock the potential of telehealth going forward by changing the ways in which New Yorkers access health care. This starts with comprehensive policy changes that give providers and patients greater flexibility to use telehealth as they deem appropriate. And we can and must ensure that those New Yorkers who are most in need have greater access to care, through new investments in telehealth infrastructure, and through the creative integration of telehealth technologies with the kinds of human support that cannot be replaced.” 

Excellus telehealth survey

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 by Excellus in late 2020. 

Of those adults who reported using telehealth, 90 percent did so since the outbreak of COVID-19. 

“The number of telehealth visits soared in 2020 as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Dr. Stephen Cohen, senior VP and chief medical officer at Excellus, Central New York’s largest health insurer.

The insurer 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 percent of telehealth claims in 2020, compared to 25 percent in 2019. 

Additional survey findings 

When asked about the primary reason telehealth is currently used, 59 percent of survey respondents said they were required to use it because of the COVID-19 pandemic, 40 percent cited convenience, 34 percent said they preferred to use it because of the pandemic, and 8 percent of respondents said they use telehealth because of the cost of the visit. 

The survey also found that respondents considered the most important features of telehealth to include ability to obtain prescriptions (79 percent), avoiding in-person visits (69 percent), and the cost of visit (58 percent). 

Excellus says it spent $102 million in 2020 to expand telehealth coverage for 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, Excellus said. 

“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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