Payers' response to COVID-19 evolves as pandemic continues to spread 

A pipette labeled Covid-19
The health plan response to COVID-19 is evolving. (Getty/Bill Oxford)

As the COVID-19 outbreak continues, health plans are adapting their response in tandem. 

In the early days of the pandemic reaching the U.S., all of the biggest health insurers agreed to waive the costs associated with testing and urged their members to embrace telehealth. 

Now, many are taking that further and sweetening the pot for members with free virtual visits, with the goal of keeping them out of the hospital. UnitedHealthcare, for example, announced this week that telehealth visits with any of its partner platforms would be offered at no charge and also offered to waive costs for coronavirus-related virtual visits from any in-network provider. 

The nation’s largest commercial insurer is also deploying virtual care tools for its highest-risk members, including a home-based care management tool and expanded access to its digital care management tools. 

“We are making every effort to protect the health of our members by keeping them safe in their homes while still enabling them to get the care they need,” said UnitedHealthcare CEO Dirk McMahon in a statement. 

RELATED: Amid the clamor, payers seek to find their role in addressing coronavirus

Other insurers have taken similar steps. Aetna is offering telemedicine visits with no copay to members in both commercial and Medicare Advantage plans, and Cigna will waive the cost of visits for COVID-19 treatment both in-person and through telehealth. 

Matt Eyles, CEO of America’s Health Insurance Plans (AHIP), said the group’s member payers were also working to connect directly with plan members to provide information both about the virus and about their benefit options. 

“I know that our members are very engaged with progressive outreach to their membership,” Eyles said. 

In addition to providing additional support to members, insurers are also evolving the way they back up providers. Blue Shield of California, for example, has launched a new digital tool that hospitals can build into their websites to assist patients in navigating their symptoms and in seeking out information about the virus.

AHIP, the Blue Cross Blue Shield Association and the Pharmaceutical Care Management Association also joined forces with prominent provider organizations such as the American Hospital Association and the American Medical Association on a letter to the White House and leaders in Congress to push for an enhanced response to the crisis. 

The letter (PDF) demands access to a stable base of medical supplies and continued work to drive patients to alternative sites of care to mitigate the onslaught in hospitals. 

“The private sector will deploy every necessary resource to match this moment,” the groups said. “It is absolutely essential for a coordinated government response to leverage the full force of the President’s national emergency declaration.” 

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