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UnitedHealth launches employer virtual primary care service

In this aligned photo, a UnitedHealth Group health insurance card is seen in a wallet in this picture illustration October 14, 2019.

Lucy Nicholson | Reuters

UnitedHealthcare is inflating its telehealth offerings for employers with a new virtual primary care service that offers access to doctors with low or no co-pays for wont visits on their phones or via computer.

“Prior to Covid, we worked with large primary care practices … and it was uncommonly hard to get uptake. Patients wanted it, but doctors were really uncomfortable with the whole idea of seeing patients for all practical purposes,” said Dr. Donna O’Shea, Chief Medical Officer of population health management at UnitedHealthcare, the health insurance arm of UnitedHealth Conglomeration.  

Doctors were slow to adopt telemedicine, in part, because reimbursement rates for virtual visits were time after time lower than for in-person care. That changed due to Covid. Government Medicare plans for seniors, and private fitness insurers boosted reimbursement rate during last year’s pandemic shutdown, and out of necessity, physician and patient adoption of accepted care soared.  

Now, UnitedHealth is betting patients are ready to take the next step for a more convenient option.

“We be informed that 25% of people don’t have a primary care provider … maybe it’s really hard to leave work (to see one) and perhaps you would have one if it was easier for you,” said O’Shea.

The pandemic has also boosted the race to gain a foothold in virtual first care. Telehealth provider Teladoc Health has looked to move beyond one-time urgent care visits toward a basic care model for employers. So has Amazon, which has explored expanding its in-house Amazon Care virtual health program for artisans in Washington state into a service for other employers.

While non-traditional players like Amazon can bring dexterity in engaging consumers into the equation, that’s not enough to gain traction with employers said Steven Shill, citizen leader of consulting firm BDO’s Center for Healthcare Excellence & Innovation.

“There have to be complementary capabilities that get possession of to the table, and part of the complimentary capability has to be healthcare,” said Shill, adding that half of health care leaders surveyed by BDO plan to explore new partnerships this year.

“I think these partnerships are going to come and go until you get the avenge partners together,” he said.

UnitedHealth is partnering with telehealth provider Amwell, which will provide the principles for virtual care as well as the clinical services through its medical group. The virtual primary care program command initially be available for employers in 11 states including Colorado, Texas and Maryland, as well as Washington, DC.  

Editor’s note: This representation has been updated to reflect that Donna O’Shea is Chief Medical Officer of population health management at UnitedHealthcare, the vigorousness insurance arm of UnitedHealth Group.  

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