Highmark, UPMC eye telemedicine

| Friday, Sept. 7, 2012, 12:01 a.m.

Many employers and consumers haven't heard of telemedicine but the technology allowing video consultation with doctors is poised to take off in Pittsburgh and elsewhere.

“Another revolution in the delivery of health care,” is how Christine Whipple, executive director of the Pittsburgh Business Group on Health, characterized telemedicine during the group's annual symposium on Thursday at the Marriott City Center, Downtown.

A survey of businesses released last month by Towers Watson found that 9 percent of companies in the United States are planning to offer telemedicine as part of their health insurance plans next year. And 27 percent are considering adding it in 2014 or 2015.

Telemedicine, which is essentially an online video consultation with a doctor for non-emergency treatment, is gaining traction because it can help deal with two increasing problems in health care: Access to doctors and high costs, said Karl Ulfers, vice president of consumer solutions for Optum Healthcare Solutions, a company that provides telemedicine services.

Ulfers addressed the Pittsburgh Business Group on Health's meeting and discussed Optum's work with Rite Aid Corp. to set up a telemedicine system online and in Rite Aid stores in Pittsburgh and Detroit, where the Camp Hill-based drug store chain has been testing the system since last year.

The technology makes it easier for patients to see a doctor in the evenings and on weekends — when traditional physician offices are typically closed — and is less costly than an office visit or a trip to the emergency room for routine illnesses, Ulfers said.

But the biggest challenge to widespread adoption so far is a lack of reimbursement by many health insurance companies for the service, he said.

Pittsburgh, however, appears to be ahead of the curve, according to the region's two biggest health insurers.

Highmark Inc., the state's largest health insurer, began offering telemedicine to its small-group customers in Western and Central Pennsylvania last month, following a successful pilot program earlier this year, spokesman Phil Neubauer said. It is working on a strategy to bring the service to its large-group and individual customers at some point in the future.

Highmark contracts with Teladoc Inc., based in Dallas, for the service, which can be accessed by members 24 hours a day, seven days a week from any computer via the Internet.

“Highmark is really pushing the Teladoc,” said Lorin Lacy, a principal in the health care practice at Buck Consultants, Downtown. “We have a couple of our clients that are putting it in for 2013.”

While most national health insurance companies offer a telemedicine service, Lacy said those insurers “don't seem to be pushing it as much as Highmark.”

UPMC Health Plan, the second largest health insurer in Western Pennsylvania, also offers a telemedicine service to its commercial customers, said Scott Haas, the health plan's director of consumerism.

The insurer, which is a subsidiary of the region's dominant hospital system, UPMC, has used outside companies to provide the service, but Haas said UPMC expects to begin its own internally developed telemedicine service by the end of the year.

And it is working with several of its large group customers on setting up telemedicine clinics at work sites to make it easier for employees.

“We really see telemedicine as a very useful vehicle to address the access issues in health care,” he said.

Alex Nixon is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7928 or anixon@tribweb.com.

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