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Big Business is Bullish on Telehealth

A new survey anticipates that most of the nation's large employers will offer telehealth as a benefit by 2020. Whether employees take advantage of the service remains to be seen.

By Eric Wicklund

- Almost every big business in the United States will make telehealth available to its employees within four years, according to a national survey.

Whether those employees take advantage of that service is another matter.

The much-anticipated Large Employers’ 2017 Health Plan Design Survey, unveiled this week by the National Business Group on Health, finds that nine out of 10 employers surveyed will make telehealth an option by next year in states where telehealth is permitted. By 2020, the survey says, “virtually all large employer respondents” will enable employees to use telehealth.

That’s an impressive jump from last year’s survey, which saw 70 percent of large employers planning on giving their employees the option of accessing healthcare online by 2016, up from 48 percent in 2015. And back in 2012, only 7 percent of employers were offering telehealth.

“Employers’ focus in 2017 is shifting away from plan design to optimizing how healthcare is accessed and delivered,” NBGH president and CEO Brian Marcotte said in a release accompanying the survey, which featured responses from 133 of the nation’s largest employers.  “That translates into expanded telehealth services, more Centers of Excellence options and optional selective network choices that focus on providing higher quality healthcare.”

That said, the study finds that employees aren’t taking advantage of the service. Only 1 percent of eligible employees used telehealth in 2015, and that percentage has risen to 3 percent so far in 2016. Other surveys have put employee participation as high as 10 percent.

“Utilization by employees remains low, but is increasing steadily,” NGBH officials said in the press release.

Telehealth could play an important role in controlling healthcare costs, a key point of concern for large businesses. According to the survey, employers anticipate holding healthcare benefit cost increases to 6 percent or less in 2017, and they’re looking to make changes in their plan design to keep those costs in check.

“Employers continue to look for opportunities where they can have a positive influence and impact on the healthcare delivered to employees and their families,” the report states. “In just five years, telehealth has gone from a niche program to a service that nearly all employers offer. A third of employers (34 percent) even offer telebehavioral health services to employees in states where it is allowed,” while more than half (55 percent) are offering self-help electronic resources like apps or videos.

The study credits much of the increase to health plans offering telehealth as a covered service, but that isn’t the only factor. Roughly 30 percent of large employers are now contracting directly with telehealth vendors.

One avenue for growth is in value-based benefit design. The survey notes that large employers aren’t jumping on the bandwagon in big numbers just yet, but nearly half have incorporated some aspects in their benefit plan. Some 16 percent have added telehealth, while 13 percent include chronic care medication adherence and another 13 percent include participation in a disease management program – two factors in which mHealth and telehealth have proven to make a measurable difference.

Employers are also placing value in health and wellness coaching and care management, all of which can be delivered online and via mHealth platforms. According to the survey, 80 percent offer nurse coaching programs for care/condition management and 72 percent offer programs for lifestyle management. In addition, 74 percent say they’ll have a disease management program by 2017, though that’s a decrease from 81 percent offering a program in 2016.

The challenge for employers now is moving beyond the hype. In 2014, Towers Watson said telehealth could save U.S. employers upwards of $6 billion a year in employee healthcare costs, and predicted that 93 percent of businesses would offer the service to their employers by 2017. That report also noted that less than 10 percent of the nation’s employees are using telehealth.

“Achieving this savings requires a shift in patient and physician mindsets, health plan willingness to integrate and reimburse such services, and regulatory support in all states,” Allan Khoury, a senior consultant at Towers Watson, said at the time. 

Dig Deeper:

Telehealth Shifts its Focus

Large Employer Trade Group Pushes for Better State Telehealth Legislation


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