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The number of companies offering employees an online healthcare service is expected to explode next year as costs continue to rise.

With health benefit costs expected to go up 4.3% in the coming year for U.S. companies, nearly all employers have tapped into telehealth or telemedicine as an alternative to charging higher deductibles or copays that directly hit their workers, Reuters reports. Telehealth allows employees to connect virtually to a doctor online. 

Just 7% of companies covered telehealth visits on their insurance plans five years ago, a recent National Business Group on Health survey finds. That compares with 96% of firms today that consider telehealth the same as physically visiting a doctor’s office, the nonpartisan research group notes. But with only 2.5% of employees using telehealth, companies need to be more proactive in promoting the service.

“It’s becoming a more accepted practice now,” says Steve Wojcik, vice president of public policy at the National Business Group on Health. Michaels Companies, a nationwide crafts store chain, provides its employees access to Teladoc, the biggest telehealth provider in the U.S. with 5,000 patients using the service daily and who pay $45 or less out-of-pocket. About 4% of Michaels Companies’ full-time employees use the service.

“We have shift workers, and they can’t always get to the doctor when it is open,” says Sharon Brown, director of benefits for the company. She further notes it is less costly than employees visiting an emergency room or urgent care location. 

“They are saving time, so there’s a productivity cost,” Brown notes. “It’s less money out of their pockets for travel or lost time at work.” Brown’s outreach methods include postcards and magnets, but also one novel approach of affixing HR messages onto bathroom stalls in the chain’s 1,300 stores, distribution centers and manufacturing plants.  

But a study done this past March found that certain treatments, including for bronchitis, resulted in a $45 per user cost increase when employees used telehealth. That was mostly due to the online sessions prompting users to seek more care from doctors as opposed to less care. 

While the American Medical Association supports telehealth as “an ongoing evolution of new models for the delivery of care and patient-physician interactions,” it also notes challenges, says Jack Resneck, AMA board member. Providers need to beware of “limitations of the relevant technologies and take appropriate steps to overcome those limitations,” he noted.

The National Business Group on Health survey also finds that 56% of employers plan to offer telehealth for behavioral health services next year, Healthcare IT News reports. That percentage is twice as high as this year. And nearly one-fifth of employers note that 8% or more of their workers are using the service.

One factor encouraging employers to embrace telehealth is “the return on investment numbers showing telehealth replacing higher-cost care settings, primarily urgent care and emergency rooms,” says Roy Schoenberg, MD, CEO and co-founder of American Well, a telemedicine technology and services firm.

“These numbers are coming from payers but are applicable to self-insured employers just the same,” he adds. “Net cost savings around $200 per visit are quoted.” 

Employers also view telehealth as an attractive benefit to win over employees and that should be high on HR’s radar. “There are many other factors that drive higher adoption, among them much better technologies, growing payer consensus, a regulatory requirement for reimbursement, and diversity of services that now go beyond urgent care, for example, behavioral health, child care, maternity, dermatology and more,” Schoenberg says. “But ROI and employee perk are the ones that move the needle the most.”

A proposal from U.S. representatives Doris Matsui (D-Calif) and Bill Johnson (R-Ohio) aims to make it easier for Health and Human Services to help telehealth gain traction, mHealth Intelligence reports. It would do this by allowing the agency to remove Medicare restrictions that hold back telehealth’s expansion. 

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