Payers make moves toward remote health

As remote health grows in popularity--and as organizations come to see the cost-savings it can produce--a number of insurers are launching telehealth and remote monitoring programs for their members.

Pittsburgh-based Highmark Inc., for example, has launched a virtual physician visit pilot program for about 10,000 of its members at three Western Pennsylvania companies and one company in West Virginia.

Highmark members participating in the pilot can contact a Teladoc physician about minor illnesses. The physician has access to the member's electronic health record and patients will get a call back from the physician within an average of 22 minutes for a fee of $38, according to a Highmark announcement. This service also facilitates sharing the member's EHR with his or her primary care physician.

"We need to make sure our members get the right care in the right setting, and we believe this service can be an alternative to care in an emergency room or urgent care setting for those persons with minor, non-emergency medical problems," Mary Goessler, a Highmark medical director, said in a statement.

The service is not intended to replace a member's regular physician and "is set up to ensure members are connected with their regular physician," Goessler said. "We encourage members to seek follow-up care through their primary care physician, if it's necessary."

Meanwhile, more than 1,600 Humana Medicare members with congestive heart failure (CHF) have been set up with interactive remote monitoring devices. The in-home devices allow a registered nurse to track a member's key vital signs daily.

The pilot program allows nurses to focus on important clinical issues while telehealth vendor, Trapollo, manages the logistics of installing the equipment in members' homes and providing training and technical support, Kate Marcus, program manager for Humana Cares, who oversees the national remote monitoring program, said in a statement.

UnitedHealthcare announced that it is putting funds behind remote health, as well--this week it donated $700,000 to the California Telehealth Network (CTN) to help expand telemedicine training and provide technical support for rural and medically underserved clinics and hospitals in California. The Minnesota-based insurer has more than 95,000 members in the Sacramento region, according to the Sacramento Business Journal.

This is the second grant UnitedHealthcare has given CTN. In 2010, UnitedHealthcare donated $600,000 to help launch CTN and its goal of connecting telehealth devices across the state.

Payers also are working on payment models for telehealth visits. Highmark, for example, plans to offer telehealth as a covered benefit in the third quarter of 2012.

And, as FierceHealthIT reported yesterday, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs is planning to waive patient co-pays for remote visits, saying it aims to make "the home a preferred place of care," whenever appropriate.

To learn more:
- read about the Highmark pilot
- see the Highmark announcement
- read more about the Humana project
- check out the Sacramento Business Journal article

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