COVID-19 has dramatically accelerated the adoption of digital health, and a new analysis from Deloitte finds that trend extends similarly to Medicare Advantage (MA) beneficiaries.
Deloitte researchers surveyed executives at MA plans, as well as digital health companies, and found that through April 2020 more MA members used telehealth than did so in all of 2019.
Through April, 26% of beneficiaries said they used telehealth or had a virtual visit for any reason, compared to 13% saying the same across all of 2019.
As open enrollment for Medicare continues, insurers that are embracing digital are getting a leg up on the competition, the analysis found.
“COVID has been a game changer. None of this was table stakes six months ago," the Medicare sales lead at one MA plan said. "As we go into the next open enrollment, if you don’t have telemedicine, you’re going to hurt.”
Sarah Thomas, managing director of Deloitte’s Center for Health Solutions, told Fierce Healthcare that members are taking notice of plans that operate with an "old-school approach" to technology.
The interest among beneficiaries extends to digital ways to enroll in new plans in lieu of meeting a broker in person, Thomas said.
"There's a significant and growing portion of people who are beginning to expect to get enrolled virtually," she said.
The researchers also found that providers, who are critical partners in growing the use of these benefits, are also "surprised" by how effective these tools are.
Deloitte analysts surveyed physicians prior to the pandemic and found that these tools were making their work more efficient and a bit easier. They're also finding it an effective way to deliver care in many circumstances, Thomas said.
“We have a primary care provider-centric view of technology. That’s our tech strategy," the chief technology officer at one plan told Deloitte. "We arm our PCPs with as much tech as possible. The best product or tool to engage the seniors are the PCPs."
The pandemic's impact on digital health has included insurers' supplemental benefits that target MA members' social determinants of health. The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services allowed MA plans to make midyear adjustments to their supplemental benefits, which provided the opportunity to offer members a smartphone for virtual visits and other options that harness the virtual space.
Insurers pointed to several key areas where they've focused amid the pandemic: transportation, home drug delivery, food and nutrition and social isolation. All of these get at one of the main challenges under COVID-19: the push for people, especially populations at high risk like seniors, to stay home to avoid exposure.
MA plans are offering transportation benefits to assist members in getting to their doctor's office or to buy groceries and are also partnering with local food banks and other services to provide food delivery.
In addition, they're offering programs to provide companionship and help members secure medications from their homes, according to the report.
The demands of the pandemic have taken these concerns from "the back seat to the passenger seat," according to the report.
"The direction and the emphasis on digital—there is no turning back," Thomas said. "Health plans that are sort of waiting on the sidelines and hoping to be a fad follower will get left behind."