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COVID-19

Copays no longer waived for some telehealth visits

Kristin Schwab Oct 1, 2020
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Copays for virtual doctor appointments that were waived at the beginning of the pandemic are coming back. Geber86/Getty Images
COVID-19

Copays no longer waived for some telehealth visits

Kristin Schwab Oct 1, 2020
Heard on:
Copays for virtual doctor appointments that were waived at the beginning of the pandemic are coming back. Geber86/Getty Images
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At the beginning of this pandemic, many insurance companies started waiving copays for telehealth visits to encourage people to stay home and to reduce stress on hospitals and health care facilities. And it worked: Telehealth visits rose more than 13% at their peak this summer.

Now, some major health insurers, including UnitedHealthcare and Anthem, are reversing course and will start charging fees starting Oct. 1. It means the cost of seeing a doctor virtually could be the same as the cost of going in person.

But not all patients view online and in-person care as equal. It’s why Dr. Chad Ellimoottil still dresses up for work, even on days when all his appointments are virtual.

“The video takes a little formality out of it, so I kind of raise the formality by wearing a white coat,” he said Ellimoottil, a urologist who directs the University of Michigan Institute for Healthcare Policy and Innovation’s Telehealth Research Incubator.

Dressing the part is important because he wants patients to know they’re getting the same treatment online as they would in person. And Reintroducing copays could make them scrutinize virtual visits even more.

“There’s no doubt that it will leave some people less interested in doing a video consultation,” he said.

And that’s really part of the point, to push patients back to seeing a doctor in person. Because people have been putting off important exams and procedures that couldn’t be done virtually.

“That led to a lot of morbidity and mortality at home because they were so scared to get care,” said Ateev Mehrotra, a professor of health care policy at Harvard Medical School. He said during the pandemic, in-patient care has dropped by 60%.

Insurance companies might also be worried that no copays meant too many people were making virtual appointments for fairly minor complaints.

“Cost sharing is thought to help reduce unnecessary visits. Or at least that’s the theory,” said Brietta Clark, professor of health care law at Loyola Marymount University.

But she said copays, which can cost as much as $100, can discourage people from getting necessary medical help. And reintroducing them will force some people to go back to weighing what’s more important: putting dinner on the table or seeing a doctor.

COVID-19 Economy FAQs

What’s the outlook for vaccine supply?

Chief executives of America’s COVID-19 vaccine makers promised in congressional testimony to deliver the doses promised to the U.S. government by summer. The projections of confidence come after months of supply chain challenges and companies falling short of year-end projections for 2020. What changed? In part, drugmakers that normally compete are now actually helping one another. This has helped solve several supply chain issues, but not all of them.

How has the pandemic changed scientific research?

Over the past year, while some scientists turned their attention to COVID-19 and creating vaccines to fight it, most others had to pause their research — and re-imagine how to do it. Social distancing, limited lab capacity — “It’s less fun, I have to say. Like, for me the big part of the science is discussing the science with other people, getting excited about projects,” said Isabella Rauch, an immunologist at Oregon Health & Science University in Portland. Funding is also a big question for many.

What happened to all of the hazard pay essential workers were getting at the beginning of the pandemic?

Almost a year ago, when the pandemic began, essential workers were hailed as heroes. Back then, many companies gave hazard pay, an extra $2 or so per hour, for coming in to work. That quietly went away for most of them last summer. Without federal action, it’s mostly been up to local governments to create programs and mandates. They’ve helped compensate front-line workers, but they haven’t been perfect. “The solutions are small. They’re piecemeal,” said Molly Kinder at the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program. “You’re seeing these innovative pop-ups because we have failed overall to do something systematically.”

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