'It's just the right thing to do': Why these 2 health systems slashed virtual visit prices

Hackensack (N.J.) Meridian Health recently began offering free virtual visits for patients who are at least 65 years old along with $20 virtual visits for all other patients seeking care for COVID-19.

While the health system will probably sustain a financial loss by reducing visit costs, the benefit of virtual care during the pandemic outweighs the financial effect, Thomas Bader, MD, vice president of medical quality at Hackensack Meridian Health, told Becker's Hospital Review.

"Every health system is dealing with the challenge of the changed environment due to COVID-19. We perceived [reducing telemedicine costs] would be a way for us to better manage the flow and perhaps reduce the burden on our emergency department," Dr. Bader said. "My guess is that the net will probably be a financial loss, but in terms of looking at what we need to do to both serve the population and manage all our healthcare delivery resources, we thought this was the right move."

Prior to the pandemic, telemedicine had been a "very tiny" component of Hackensack Meridian's business, according to Dr. Bader. Because of this, the health system will not experience a significant financial loss by offering free visits.

"It's a pretty easy step to take. It's the right thing," he said. "Maybe it's going to cost us a little bit of money, but it's probably going to make it easier for us to get through this. But again, it's still a tiny piece of what we do, even if it increases by 500 percent, it shifts from being very, very tiny to just tiny."

Despite its limited financial effect, the adjusted virtual visit prices coupled with social distancing recommendations and insurance relaxations have resulted in a more than 500 percent increase in visit volume. To navigate this shift in care delivery, Hackensack Meridian distributed 1,000 laptops to its physicians to help them maintain face-to-face interactions with patients through video chat. The health system also began reassigning some of its physicians whose work has slowed down to do telemedicine consults.

Chicago-based CommonSpirit Health is also navigating physician demands after reducing virtual visit prices. The health system recently began offering telemedicine visits to patients experiencing symptoms of COVID-19 at no cost.

To meet the visit demands, CommonSpirit has been onboarding thousands of its physicians to both the scheduled visit capabilities and the virtual urgent care platform to help alleviate the virtual demand, said Suja Chandrasekaran, senior executive vice president and chief information and digital officer at CommonSpirit.

"Demand continues to grow and more physicians are being added every day, with a goal of seeing thousands of patients virtually each day," she told Becker's. "While wait times for virtual urgent care visits are a bit higher than we’d like – sometimes as long as an hour – in general, we are meeting the demand for the service."

Many of CommonSpirit's clinicians have been able start using the health system's virtual care platforms after CMS waived telemedicine restrictions for Medicare members last month, according to Ms. Chandrasekaran. With the loosened restrictions, CMS will pay clinicians to provide telemedicine services for beneficiaries during the pandemic.

Virtual care is "an important investment" because the health system anticipates telemedicine becoming a more standard healthcare delivery approach even after the pandemic. However, the health system's main focus for now is ensuring that anyone who needs care has access to it, making virtual visits key to its COVID-19 response.

"In the longer term, there will be a time to focus on the revenue cycle and our hope is that these types of visits, and insurance coverage for them, will become more the norm," she said.

More articles on telehealth:
5 COVID-19 telehealth challenges as Washington aims to flatten the curve
The 27 telehealth services Aetna covers during COVID-19 and their codes
FCC approves $200M telehealth program: 6 things for hospitals to know

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