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Large Tennessee insurer makes telehealth coverage permanent

As more patient visits take place online during the Covid-19 pandemic, most commercial insurers have expanded their telehealth coverage. Now, healthcare providers are waiting to see if those changes will last.

Tennessee’s largest commercial insurer was one of the first to signal its continued coverage of telehealth. Last week, it updated its plans to permanently keep expanded telehealth coverage.

“This recent period has proven virtual care can work for preventive, routine and maintenance care, and we’re making this decision because the added convenience can bring better health,” BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee President and CEO JD Hickey said in a news release.

To start, the insurer just expanded its telehealth coverage to primary care providers, behavioral health providers and other specialists. Later, it began covering occupational therapy, speech therapy and applied behavioral analysis (ABA) therapy. The company will reimburse for both phone calls and video visits.

As health plans began to cover more telehealth visits, adoption soared. Between March 16 and April 14, BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee saw 71,000 telehealth claims, 18 times more than it saw during the same period last year.

Telehealth startups and healthcare providers have similarly reported a sharp increase in telehealth visits, though overall patient volumes are still down since the start of the pandemic.

Vanderbilt University Medical Center (VUMC) said it has seen daily telehealth visits increase from 10 per day to 2,000 per day since the pandemic started. Not only were more patients aware of the service, but more healthcare providers got on board.

Amber Humphrey, VUMC’s director of telehealth, said the health system had to figure out how to enable telehealth for its 2,500 providers “essentially overnight.”

“Prior to the pandemic, approximately 160 providers were using telehealth in some form or fashion, and only a small subset of those were offering direct-to-patient telehealth, which is most of what we’re doing today,” she said in a news release.

Looking to the future, healthcare providers are trying to determine if telehealth is here to stay. For smaller practices, this could affect decisions in how much time and resources they spend training staff on new systems.

Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services Administrator Seema Verma has hinted that the agency might keep some of the changes made to its telehealth coverage during the Covid-19 pandemic, though CMS hasn’t yet announced any specific plans.

If other insurers make similar moves, it could be a sign of things to come.

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