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How does telehealth work?

Telemedicine improves health outcomes and accessibility for remote patients.

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At its core, telehealth is a simple way to deliver medical services and share important health information remotely. You can use telehealth services for diagnosing a variety of minor problems, managing chronic conditions and even for preventive care. Although Americans have used telemedicine for years, many insurance companies are expanding services to help members stay safe during the coronavirus.

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Name Product Telehealth coverage Wellness support Membership required Average monthly cost
Zocdoc
Zocdoc
Yes
Yes
No
$0
Understand your health plan by uploading your insurance card to your account, revealing your coverage details and in-network doctors
4 Your Health
Yes
Yes
Yes
$14.95
Get 24/7 wellness advice, meal plans, workouts and telehealth doctors, including psychologists and pharmacists. No insurance needed.
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What is telehealth?

Telehealth is a way for patients to get medical care and ongoing health monitoring without going to a physical doctor’s office. For remote doctor’s visits, the consultation might happen over the Internet or by phone.

Outside of consultations, many doctors and medical staff set up technology communications for services like:

  • Monitoring. Remote devices can monitor different factors about your health, such as a heart monitor for a cardiac patient.
  • Prescriptions. Patients may get common prescriptions after a telehealth doctor’s visit more quickly than if they waited to see their local doctor.
  • Information sharing. Doctors can share vital medical information securely through online patient portals to improve outcomes.
  • Diagnosis. For minor illnesses or problems, a doctor can sometimes diagnose you and provide treatment recommendations via a video call.

How has telemedicine expanded during the coronavirus?

Insurance companies have expanded telehealth services for both government-backed health insurance and private policies. The services have widened in these ways:

Medicare telehealth expanded

You can get telehealth benefits through Medicare Part B, and you’ll pay the same doctor fees as in-person visits in most cases. Medicare Advantage Plans may provide more telehealth coverage than Original Medicare.

Under Original Medicare, you can access specific telehealth services, but you’ll pay for cost-sharing and your deductible up front. Telehealth services that qualify include:

  • Common office visits for evaluations or health management
  • Mental health counseling
  • Services not provided at your medical care location

Privately insured telehealth services

Although private health insurance companies aren’t required to expand telehealth availability, many are following the government’s example. You may have access to more doctors in-network using telehealth programs and your cost-sharing may get waived, depending on your insurance company.

How does a telemedicine visit work?

To visit with a doctor using telemedicine, you typically access the service through your online patient portal or by downloading a healthcare facility or telehealth app. You should be able to use these benefits with a computer or smartphone. In some cases, your provider might offer a phone hotline.

Follow these steps to use the telemedicine service:

  1. Download the telemedicine app or follow your provider’s instructions to log into their system.
  2. Follow the prompts to set up your account.
  3. You may have to fill out a form for scheduling a visit or requesting a callback.
  4. Open the portal or app’s video or phone conferencing tool to meet with your provider.
  5. Explain your symptoms and any health concerns you might have.
  6. Listen to and write down your provider’s recommendations.
  7. If needed, your doctor may send a prescription to your local or online pharmacy. You can pick it up once the prescription is filled.

How can I access telehealth services?

If your health insurance company offers these services, you can video call any eligible doctor, nurse or mental health professional and get coverage. However, cost-sharing may apply based on your Medicare plan, the type of telehealth service or your private insurance company.

Ways you can access telehealth services:

  • Health trackers. Wearables, apps and other mobile medical devices can track and send reports to your doctor with personal medical data.
  • Real-time video communication. You can interact with health professionals to evaluate your health and make diagnoses based on visual information. Some health insurance may require these to happen using communication tools with both real-time video and audio. In most cases, you can access these tools through your computer, a smartphone or tablet.
  • Networked telehealth sites. Health clinics in rural areas can link to larger facilities such as hospitals via high-speed internet. That way patients can visit specialists from the rural hospital facility remotely.
  • Online patient portals. Internet portals allow healthcare providers to forward, store and share patient data securely. The patient or relevant providers involved in the patient’s care may get forwarded this information, according to laws from the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA).

How to use telehealth through Medicare

In addition, Medicare patients can use telehealth services using these guidelines:

  • Virtual check-ins — Must be unrelated to a medical visit from the last seven days and shouldn’t lead to a medical visit within 24 hours. Also, the patient must consent verbally and the doctor should document that consent before using the service.
  • Online patient portals — The patient should start the communication with their doctor using this secure online access to their health information.
  • Full medical visits — Patients who need specific care but live in rural areas can access medical professionals at specific telehealth locations. The locations are typically nearby medical facilities. Patients should also use a real-time audio and video communication tool for this visit. Under the Medicare Advantage Plan, you might be able to use these services at home.

Which health insurance companies cover telemedicine?

Some health insurers offer coverage or waived cost-sharing for telehealth services during the coronavirus. Checked as of April 1, 2020, learn what telehealth benefits these companies are offering:

Insurance company Telehealth benefits offered Telehealth benefits offered during coronavirus
Aetna No copay for mental health telemedicine visits through December 31, 2020. Other telehealth benefits’ cost-sharing and insurance deductibles apply. Aetna extended all member cost-sharing waivers for covered in-network telemedicine visits for outpatient behavioral and mental health counseling services through September 30, 2020. For Medicare Advantage plans, Aetna is waiving cost shares for in-network primary care and specialist telehealth visits, including outpatient behavioral and mental health counseling services, through September 30, 2020.
Anthem This health insurer is waiving cost-sharing for telemedicine visits through December 31, 2020 for Medicare and Medicaid patients, including mental health visits. Telephone visit cost-sharing also is waived through this date for most members, including those with employer-issued or individual plans. If your Anthem plan includes telehealth, you can access your covered telehealth provider as usual. If your plan does not include telehealth you can use a service like LiveHealth Online for a set fee per visit.
Blue Cross Blue Shield Association BCBS and all its independently operated companies are expanding telehealth networks and phone provider hotlines. Individual BCBS locations are taking extra measures to support their communities, including telemedicine discounts for people who are uninsured. Blue Cross Blue Shield expanded coverage for telehealth services for 90 days, which ended in mid-August.
Centene This company is expanding access to its telehealth services, including in rural and low-income communities. It’s also waiving cost-sharing for coronavirus-related telehealth visits. Centene ended free coverage for all telehealth services related to coronavirus on June 30, 2020.
Cigna Cigna is waiving member costs for coronavirus-related telehealth visits, and many plans have access to telehealth services like MDLIVE. The company has also set up a 24-hour toll-free hotline to connect members to qualified providers: 866-912-1687. Cigna is offering a free Cornavirus supportline staffed by Cigna behavioral specialist at 866-912-91687. This hotline is available 24/7 to the general public to help manage feelings of stress, fear, and anxiety.
HCSC Corporation If your current plan covers telemedicine visits, you can access these services without cost-sharing.

HCSC Corporation is offering access to in-network telemedicine or telehealth service provider visits for covered services without paying copays, deductibles, or coinsurance.

You can also call the 24/7 HCSC nurseline to help you identify options if you’re sick at 800-581-0368.
Services you might have access to include live video calls with a doctor, mail-order prescriptions and 24/7 access to a nurse hotline. The nurse’s hotline number is 800-581-0368.

Humana Humana is waiving cost-sharing for all in-network telemedicine visits for individual and Medicare plans through December 31, 2020.

Members also can call the customer support line for questions and concerns about the coronavirus, including live telemedicine support. The toll-free phone number is listed on the member ID card.

Humana is waiving member out-of-pocket costs for in-network telehealth provider visits through the end of 2020, including routine visits for primary and specialty care and behavioral health services. This expanded coverage includes audio-only telephone consultations as well as online visits with your current healthcare providers if they are set up to offer telehealth services.

In addition, for Medicare Advantage members, the waiver applies to MDLIVE. For Humana commercial members, the waiver applies to Doctor On Demand, although certain ASO employer groups may have opted out of this benefit option. For Humana Medicaid members in Florida, this waiver applies to Amwell.

Kaiser Permanente This company is extending telemedicine visits by video or phone calls when appropriate. It encourages members to use its mail-order pharmacy for prescriptions. Kaiser Permanente is offering e-vists through its website to hear your symptoms and share guidance for care.
Molina Healthcare Inc. Group Molina covers telemedicine and telehealth visits for in-network providers and offers Medicaid patients these benefits through Teladoc at no cost. Molina is providing virtual urgent care services through its partnership with Teladoc and offering free home delivery of prescriptions through any CVS Pharmacy. In addition, the company is providing telehealth services based on Medicaid Agency updates. Molina also made a Coronavirus Chatbot online tool available to help members identify Coronavirus symptoms and connect them with support resources.
UnitedHealthcare United is waiving cost-sharing for Medicare Advantage telehealth visits. Medicaid plans are subject to state guidelines, and individual and employer-sponsered plans vary based on the benefits chosen. UnitedHealthcare is extending the cost-share waiver for in- and out-of-network teleheath providers through the national public health emergency period.

What specialists use telehealth?

Depending on the type of treatment you need, you may have access to:

  • Telemedicine. Live video conferencing and information sharing between healthcare professionals and patients in remote locations.
  • Teleradiology. Teleradiology allows general doctors to send X-rays securely to a radiologist at another location to speed up diagnosis for a patient’s condition.
  • Telepsychiatry. Telepsychiatry lets psychiatrists treat patients remotely, increasing public access to behavioral health services.
  • Teledermatology. Teledermatology allows doctors to send pictures of patients’ skin conditions to a skin specialist.
  • Teleophthalmology. With teleophthalmology, ophthalmologists can examine a patient’s eyes remotely to diagnose eye problems.
  • Telenephrology. Telenephrology allows a general medical practitioner to consult a nephrologist virtually about a patient’s kidney problem.
  • Teleobstetrics. Teleobstetrics enables an obstetrician to provide remote prenatal care for some routine visits.
  • Teleoncology. With the aid of teleoncology, oncologists can provide more accessible and convenient care to patients with cancer.
  • Telepathology. This technology allows pathologists to share high-resolution images and videos for diagnosis, research and education.
  • Telerehabilitation. Allows medical professionals to provide some physical therapy services remotely.

Bottom line

Telehealth has gained ground recently with expanded services for urgent care, common health checkups and accessing specialist opinions for smaller health clinics. Its services can help patients stay home while still accessing the healthcare they need.

Frequently asked questions about telehealth services

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