Anthem sees telehealth use spike 136x for Medicare Advantage members due to COVID-19

An elderly woman has a virtual visit with her doctor
Anthem released a study examining just how much telehealth use spiked among its Medicare Advantage members. (Jean-philippe WALLET/Getty Images)

Virtual care use among Anthem's Medicare Advantage members was 136 times greater in the early months of the pandemic compared to pre-COVID-19 levels, a new report from the insurer shows.

Between March and May 2020, Anthem's MA members used 600,000 virtual health services, compared to 4,400 through the same period in 2019. Of those 600,000 services, 98% were rendered in existing physician-patient relationships, Anthem found.

The total number of new patient encounters in March and May, however, was higher than the total use of virtual care for the same window in 2019, according to the report.

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“Earlier this year, the delivery of care changed as a result of the pandemic, so we examined that shift in order to better understand how members were using and accessing care,” said Jennifer Kowalski, vice president of the Anthem Public Policy Institute, in a statement.

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Social distancing due to the pandemic has led to an explosion in telehealth across all types of coverage, with FAIR Health estimating claims lines increased by 8,336% in April due to demand.

Industry experts say that while it's unlikely demand will remain at its current height when the pandemic subsides, interest in virtual care is not likely to go away. Anthem said that part of the goal in its new analysis is to plan ahead for these changes.

“The intention of this report is to share these insights about the rapid uptick in the use of virtual services during the early months of the pandemic and the types of services that members were accessing," Kowalski said. "We believe that by examining and sharing how and when members were using virtual services, we can help to shape the healthcare system to better leverage digital technology to meet the needs of members and all Americans moving forward.”

Mental health conditions and substance abuse were the most commonly-treated conditions via virtual health, according to the report, with use increasing 5,000% year-over-year. For physical conditions, cardiovascular needs were most common, followed by musculoskeletal conditions and endocrine and metabolic conditions.

The report also notes that while virtual care use was up substantially among MA members, overall use is down compared to 2019 in-person care levels.

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