UnitedHealthcare will nix out-of-pocket costs for its 24/7 Virtual Visits in some of its fully insured plans beginning July 1.
The insurance giant revealed the change through a notice to its brokers about the new offering. The $0 cost for these urgent care visits will become available upon renewal or at new enrollment for the eligible plans, according to the alert.
The goal, the insurer said, is to make it easier for people to access care for acute needs. The changes to cost-sharing will extend to people in high-deductible health plans, which can offer ease of mind for members and families who have yet to meet their deductible for the year.
By the end of next year, UnitedHealthcare expects the offering to reach 5 million people, and the waived out-of-pocket costs will extend through at least 2024, per current regulatory flexibilities.
Donna O'Shea, M.D., chief medical officer of population health for UnitedHealthcare, said in an interview that greater access to virtual services for acute concerns can play a key role in reducing unneeded, costly visits to urgent care centers or emergency departments. UnitedHealth crunched the numbers, and data suggest a quarter of emergency department visits could be treated virtually, she said.
Virtual care also offers a significant opportunity to reach people in underserved areas or more remote regions, O'Shea said.
"Depending on where you live, it can be very difficult," she said. "It can be very hard to get care quickly and conveniently."
In addition, while high-deductible health plans are a common offering in the employer-sponsored market, members are often unsatisfied with their experience in these plans, given the need to meet a higher deductible threshold over the course of the year. That can lead people to push off key preventive services or acute visits that could catch a health issue before it becomes a much larger concern.
Through the 24/7 Virtual Visit program, members can connect to a clinician on-demand via phone or video using the UnitedHealthcare app or online portal. Available providers can treat a range of acute needs and are able to prescribe medications if needed.
UnitedHealth said it will also make it possible for self-funded employer plans to adopt a similar policy for their membership.
The new program is part of UnitedHealthcare's broader strategy around enhancing access to virtual care. Across the enterprise, the insurer is making a $5 billion annual investment in data, technology, research and innovation. In 2021, UHC also launched a virtual primary care offering as part of this work.
O'Shea said the company has seen a 2000% increase in utilization of virtual urgent care services compared to pre-COVID levels, and even with that exponential growth there's still work to do to inform people about the services they could access.
"Pre-pandemic people weren’t as aware of virtual care. Even though we had these urgent virtual care visits, they weren’t as widely utilized," she said. "I think there are still people that could learn about them."