Reimbursed Virtual Physician Visits Expected To Take Off

At least three major health plans currently reimburse physicians for online patient visits, and more insurers could follow suit as physicians and patients begin to embrace the technology, the Orlando Sentinel reports.

Cigna and Aetna began offering reimbursements for online visits to physicians nationally in December 2007, while Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Florida has reimbursed a limited number of online visits in Florida since 2004.

However, the service has been slow to catch on, the Sentinel reports. Blue Cross officials estimate the total number of monthly online visits in Florida to be about 50, with fewer than 12 being submitted for reimbursement.

Consultation System

Cigna, Aetna and Blue Cross use RelayHealth's webVisits system, which uses a structured interview and takes patients through a series of questions that cover about 150 types of symptoms.

Frank Dienst, a Florida physician who conducts virtual visits, noted that Web visits should only be used for nonurgent medical problems and with certain patients. He added that not all patients are trustworthy and that some patients do not understand the limitations of a remote consultation.

Reimbursement Levels

Ken Tarkoff, a spokesperson for RelayHealth, said physician reimbursement levels for Web visits typically range from $30 to $35, with patient copayments usually ranging between $5 and $10.

The reimbursement rate is about one-third of the price of an office visit, according to David Gunsteens of Parrish Medical Center in Brevard County, Fla.

Future Trends

Gunsteens said more than a dozen primary care physician offices in the Orlando region will have the capability for online consultations by the end of 2008.

Gunsteens also predicted that over the next year or two, there will be a significant increase in the number of primary care physicians that offer the e-visits, and within a few years, "the vast majority of family-physician practices" will be offering them (Wessel, Orlando Sentinel, 4/28).

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