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Alabama County Commission to Tackle Telehealth Engagement Issue

Faced with soaring healthcare costs, the Morgan County Commission decides to renew a telehealth program even though only 15 people used it last year. Now they have to convince their employees to use the service.

Source: ThinkStock

By Eric Wicklund

- An Alabama county commission is reversing its decision to end a telehealth program for almost 400 employees, saying rising healthcare costs are more damaging than low engagement.

The Morgan County Commission rescinded its decision last week to cut ties with MD Live, which serves the county’s roughly 390 employees for $14,000 a year. The commission had originally decided – unanimously - to end the contract because only 15 people used the service last year.

But with the self-insured county due to close the fiscal year (ending Sept. 30) some $800,000 in the red in healthcare costs, commissioners reversed course, saying they’d rather keep the telehealth program going and tackle the engagement issue head-on.

“I think that really could be a great tool to help offset some of the costs if we could just get some of our employees to utilize it, and think maybe education is where we failed,” Commissioner Randy Vest said during last week’s meeting, as reported in the Decatur Daily. Vest even offered to pay for the contract out of his own district’s funds if the program can’t cover costs.

The commission’s dilemma is common in many parts of the country where telehealth hasn’t yet taken hold: employees are hesitant to use the platform or uncertain how to use it, and are more comfortable going to the family doctor or a retail clinic despite the inconvenience.

Just last week, a Willis Towers Watson survey indicated employers are optimistic that telehealth can help them offset continued increases in employee healthcare costs. A few days later, the latest National Business Group on Health survey found that nearly all large employers will have a telehealth benefit in place by 2018.

The challenge lies in employee participation, especially for smaller companies. The NBGH survey found that employee use is at 8 percent of higher in one-fifth of the companies it surveyed. For a business the size of Morgan County, even that figure amounts to only about 24 people.

Julie Stone, a national healthcare practice leader at Willis Towers Watson, said that survey points to the hard road ahead for smaller companies.

“Cost management of health benefit programs remains the top priority for employers in 2017 and 2018,” she said in a press release accompanying the survey. “While employers made significant progress over the last few years refining their subsidy and vendor/carrier strategies, many are now looking to other aspects of their health benefit programs in order to improve health and dampen future cost increases. Over the next three years, they will seek to improve patient engagement, expand the use of analytics, and efficiently manage pharmacy costs and utilization. Yet, with rising concerns about affordability, employers are challenged to keep costs low without overburdening employees financially.”

Commissioners have said the large healthcare bill over the past year could be due in part to an atypical number of surgeries, but they also warned that the county could face “massive cuts” – including layoffs – if costs remain high.

According to the local newspaper, the commission had considered setting up a free clinic for its employees, but that contract would have cost upwards of $300,000 and required at least 15 percent of the county’s employees to take part in the program.

Commission Chairman Ray Long said the county would hold mandatory meetings to teach employees how to use the telehealth platform.

“We’ve got to look for a way to scale back our healthcare costs or we’re going to be hurting,” he said.

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