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Employers Are High on Telehealth - But Not Necessarily on mHealth

A new survey finds that employers are embracing telehealth in their health plans and adding incentives to keep their employees interested, but they're not finding value in health and wellness programs just yet.

Source: ThinkStock

By Eric Wicklund

- More and more employers are making telehealth a part of their health plans – and they’re adding incentives so that employees will choose telehealth over a visit to the doctor’s office or emergency room or urgent care center.

That’s the take-away from a recent survey of more than 900 health plans by Gartner and DirectPath, and an indication that employers are not only thinking seriously about cutting healthcare expenses, but also heeding employee demands for more choices.

According to the 2018 Medical Trends and Observations Report, 55 percent of those surveyed are now offering telemedicine in their health plans, a dramatic increase from the roughly 33 percent who offered the service in 2017.

In addition, there’s a trend toward reducing the impact on employees for choosing telehealth. Some employers are covering the copay or waiving it altogether, while the median copay has dropped to about $20, rivalling the basic office visit. And some employers are highlighting retail clinics, with $20 median copays that fall far below the $35 copay for an urgent care clinic.

“With employees increasingly demanding ‘choice’ in all aspects of their lives, offering comparable costs for different sources of care seems appropriate,” the report notes. “With no end in sight to healthcare cost increases, driving employees to more cost-effective providers by charging lower copays for those services can help ensure that participants get the care they need on a timely basis, rather than waiting until a condition becomes acute or critical.”

READ MORE: Telehealth Stands to Gain from Anthem’s ER Policy Expansion

Interestingly, the median copay for an ER visit also dropped – from $148 in 2017 to $100 in 2018. That may be an indication that employers are trying to help employees manage their out-of-pocket expenses, the report notes.

The study’s finding fall in line with the National Business Group on Health’s Large Employers’ 2018 Health Care Strategy and Plan Design Survey, which found that almost all large employers are expected to have a telehealth benefit in place by the end of this year – and many are now moving toward specific services, like telemental health.

“Employers are recognizing that traditional cost control techniques alone aren’t able to reduce costs to the point where they are no longer a drain on the bottom line,” Brian Marcotte, president and CEO of the NBGH, said in a press release issued alongside the survey last August. “While employers continue to address costs through healthcare management and plan design efforts, they are also ramping up efforts to positively affect the supply side of the healthcare system by pursuing healthcare payment and delivery reform initiatives.”  

Not all the news is good, from a telehealth perspective. The survey also finds that fewer employees are offering wellness benefits – more than half offered them in 2017, but less than a third ore offering them now.

“The apparent decline in plans including wellness incentives may reflect employer concerns about the future legality of these plans, as well as continued questions as to their actual value as a cost-control mechanism,” the report noted, citing a February 2018 University of Chicago Harris School of Public Policy survey that found little or no value in wellness programs.

READ MORE: Survey Suggests Employers Have Confidence in Telehealth, mHealth

The problem might also lie in defining value. A 2017 State of Corporate Wellness report, developed for Fitbit by digital health analytics firm Springbuk, found that companies are embracing fitness wearables in their wellness programs, but many aren’t measuring a financial ROI, and some don’t even know if those mHealth tools are helping their employees.

“While it’s easier for some to measure healthcare spend against medical claims, calculating the ROI of disease management and wellness measures is more difficult,” the report pointed out.

The implication here is that employers may be moving away from programs that reward employees for tracking their health, either through their own mHealth wearables or those provided by the company. Or it may signal that employers are still trying to figure out what works best in workforce health and wellness.

“There’s never going to be just one perfect solution when it comes to health care benefit offerings,” Kim Buckey, DirectPath’s Vice President of Client Services, said in a press release. “Employers today need to combine creative plan design, robust employee education programs, and the ability to customize a benefits package to meet individual needs to manage plan costs – for both individuals and businesses.”

“The good news is that there are resources available, like enrollment support, patient advocacy and transparency services, to help employers improve their employees’ healthcare literacy and steer them toward options that meet their healthcare needs at the right price,” she added. “In 2018, we expect more and more employers to take advantage of these services to ultimately drive down costs while improving employees’ benefits satisfaction.”

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