4 telehealth takeaways from our chief medical officer’s U.S. Senate Committee testimony

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BCBST News Center, Jesse Thompson, June 23, 2020

On June 17, 2020, Dr. Andrea Willis, senior vice president and chief medical officer at BlueCross, testified before the U.S. Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP). She was invited to share what we’re learning about telehealth as more people have embraced it during the COVID-19 pandemic.

HELP has broad jurisdiction over health care, education, employment and retirement policies nationwide — including focus areas like public health — and is led by Senator Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.).

“BlueCross regularly participates in the democratic process,” says Dakasha Winton, senior vice president and chief government relations officer. “Our goal, always, is to represent our over 3.5 million members, which includes our over 7,000 employees, to maintain access to high-quality, affordable health care.”

Below are four key takeaways from Dr. Willis’ testimony.

  1. BlueCross was the first major insurer to commit to covering in-network telehealth services on an ongoing basis throughout the crisis.

“We wanted our members to retain virtual access to the physicians they knew and trusted,” Dr. Willis said. “It was clear our members and providers wanted the choice to use virtual care, and telehealth services was another way to collaborate with in-network providers to make quality care more convenient.”

“We believe this was the right thing to do for our members and for the providers in Tennessee we rely on to care for those members.”

  1. From mid-March to mid-May, BlueCross saw 50 times more telemedicine claims than during the same time period last year.

“Prior to COVID-19, BlueCross had seen utilization rates for telemedicine consistently below 30% for members with that benefit,” Dr. Willis said. “As we expanded and encouraged telemedicine throughout the crisis, we saw utilization rates rise. The key was partnering with in-network providers.”

“In general, those doctor-patient relationships transformed and thrived as they both turned to this method of interaction.”

  1. Telemedicine helps our members access care they may have forgone otherwise, and without the increased risk of infection.

“Because the data is still accumulating, it’s too early to definitively say that the expansion of telehealth has improved health outcomes but this mode of interaction can effectively break down a barrier to access to care,” Dr. Willis said. “Improving access to care in rural areas has been a priority in Tennessee, and as a result of this expansion, primary care doctors, behavioral health specialists and other providers are able to continue delivering necessary care while maintaining social distancing and reducing some inappropriate emergency room and urgent care use.”

“Telemedicine allows access to care during work hours in lieu of taking an entire day off. It can allow for follow-up interactions with high-risk patients who may be negatively impacted by sitting in a waiting room.”

  1. We will keep supporting telehealth by collaborating to build a sustainable path forward.

“With the rapid and widespread adoption of this new method of care delivery, we recognize we may identify and make changes to address issues we couldn’t address during the crisis that began in March,” Dr. Willis said. “We carefully monitor data to ensure that our network providers are rendering the services and that the level of care is appropriate to the practitioner delivering the services. We are closely monitoring prescriptions that are generated from telemedicine. And most importantly, we listen to both the compliments and complaints coming from the consumers.”

“These actions are aligned with our role as a member advocate committed to providing access to affordable, evidence-based care.”

Dr. Willis closed her testimony by stressing that access to care is a key component of improving quality and outcomes.

“Telemedicine provides that opportunity and is one of those tools,” she told lawmakers. “The increase in utilization demonstrates that our members and providers — your constituents — have come to appreciate this capability.”

Read on the BCBST News Center.