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Tennessee Health Plan Makes COVID-19 Telehealth Coverage Permanent

BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee expanded telehealth coverage in March to help members access care during the Coronavirus pandemic. Officials said they'll keep that coverage in place past the emergency.

Published Friday, May 15, 2020
by Eric Wicklund

 - A Tennessee health plan is making its telehealth coverage permanent, saying lessons learned during the Coronavirus pandemic have proven the value of connected health services.

BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee announced this week that coverage of virtual visits with in-network providers will continue past the ongoing national emergency. The payer had announced in March that it was covering “telephone and video visits” to enable its members to more easily access health services from their homes.

The insurer said it managed 71,000 telehealth claims from March 16 to April 14, 18 times more than the number of claims submitted during that time period last year.

“We’re committed to helping our members get the care they need, and telehealth offers them and the providers they trust with more options that fit their everyday needs,” JD Hickey, the company’s president and CEO, said in a press release. “This recent period has proven virtual care can work for preventive, routine and maintenance care, and we’re making this decision because the added convenience can bring better health.”

Spurred by national and state mandates to reduce exposure to the COVID-19 virus through in-person care, many payers – including the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services – eased barriers around the use of telehealth. They expanded coverage to more types of providers and services, included modalities like audio-only phones and store-and-forward telemedicine, and enables clinics, community health centers and the home to serve as telehealth sites.

But the vast majority of these emergency actions are scheduled to end soon, either at a defined date or when the national emergency declaration expires.

BCBST is reportedly one of the first payers to embrace telehealth over the long term.

The insurer initially covered telehealth services delivered by primary care, specialists and mental health providers, and later added occupational, physical and speech therapy and ABA therapy services. It also made mHealth visits through the PhysicianNow portal available at no cost; those visits “will continue to be available with regular cost-sharing,” the payer said.

While some states had mandated telehealth coverage – and in some cases payment parity - by private payers during the COVID-19 crisis, others did not. Some payers have argued in the past that they should be the ones to negotiate telehealth coverage with providers.

Tennessee was among the state not mandating telehealth coverage.

“During the legislative debate on telehealth, the Senate maintained that the free market would best determine how telehealth services would play out,” Senator Paul Bailey, R-Sparta, chairman of the Senate Commerce and Labor Committee, told the Chattanooga Times Free Press this week. “It is best that doctors, insurance providers, and patients define the value of these services, rather than rely on burdensome definitions mandated by the General Assembly.”

Bailey added he hopes other payers will follow BCBST’s example “to provide Tennesseans with cost-effective telehealth services that are readily available and safe.”


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