By David Zanze, Executive Vice President of Western Growers Assurance Trust
The pandemic has changed the way employees view and access health care, specifically when it comes to telehealth. Although telehealth services have been available for quite some time, they have proven incredibly convenient as a substitute for office visits for those wanting to avoid unnecessary travel during uncertain times.
Telehealth has surged since the start of the pandemic, with an estimated 83.9 percent of patients using virtual health care visits for the first time, according to the International Data Corporation (IDC). A recent report by Fair Health found that the percentage of national telehealth claims rose 4,347 percent when compared to all medical services between March 2019 and March 2021. And while it is logical to expect telehealth utilization to ease up as the pandemic continues to subside, it still remained much higher than before the pandemic began. In December 2021, Fair Health found that national telehealth claims comprised 4.9 percent of all medical claim lines, compared with just 0.2 percent in December 2019.
Surprisingly, telehealth options have been widely adopted by the senior population as well. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services had the Office of the Inspector General (OIG) conduct a review of Medicare fee-for-service and Medicare Advantage telehealth claims. It found that more than 28 million Medicare beneficiaries used telehealth during the first year of the pandemic, representing more than two in five of these beneficiaries.
Beyond the pandemic, there are a variety of reasons why patients prefer telehealth and are using it more frequently, including difficulty in securing transportation and economic constraints. As more patients discover the convenience and benefits of telehealth, we can expect the popularity of virtual health care to continue to rise.
Telehealth as a Cost-Saving Solution
Telehealth services can be extremely cost effective for both employers and employees. The Western Growers Family of Companies exists to ensure the viability and success of its members in the ag community, which is why we encourage our members to make use of virtual health care.
The ag community benefits from telehealth in several ways:
• A patient can engage with a doctor from any location within minutes.
• Telemedicine reduces barriers to care for workers or family members who may live in rural settings, live far away from specialists or have transportation or mobility issues (e.g., older adults or those with limited mobility).
• Telehealth services are bilingual, offering the option of Spanish-speaking providers.
• Patients have peace of mind knowing that a board-certified doctor is only a phone call away, especially if an employee or a covered family member doesn’t have immediate transportation.
• Telehealth can also improve the health care system and helps hospitals and waiting rooms from becoming too crowded.
It’s important to help employees better understand how to use the program and remind them it is available year round. Here are several ways employers can help boost participation in the program:
• Provide a telehealth welcome kit to employees. Include FAQs that address employees’ concerns of the quality of the doctors, confidentiality, technical issues that can arise and the types of issues telemedicine can treat.
• Provide tutorials that walk employees through the process.
• Communicate the availability of your telemedicine program through employee newsletters, shared drives, and posters in break rooms.
If you currently don’t offer a telemedicine service to your employees or have health insurance through WGAT (telemedicine is included in every plan), now may be the time to take a closer look. If you don’t have a WGAT plan, you can contact Western Growers Insurance Services for more information and see how we can help you manage your health care costs more effectively. You can reach a sales team member at (800) 333-4WGA.
In addition to serving as executive vice president of Western Growers Assurance Trust, David Zanze is the president of Pinnacle Claims Management, Inc.