Just a few short months ago in November of 2019, the news was primarily dominated by the election, the opioid crisis, drug pricing, vaping and healthcare reform, among other issues.1 Unfortunately, coronavirus (COVID-19) has superseded all these important issues and brought light to new ones. With the economy declining rapidly, paying for healthcare continues to frighten patients. According to a report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), although the number of patients struggling to pay medical bills has fallen by 5.5 percentage points since 2011, more than 14% of Americans still had problems in 2018.2 Americans are being challenged to prioritize and make difficult decisions such as purchasing food or goods, taking medications as prescribed, consolidating living situations, or even filing for bankruptcy.
Although the government and private health insurers have committed to making the test for COVID-19 free to patients, regretfully, the other costs of care, such as the visit itself, may be not covered. When seeking treatment from primary or urgent care offices, and even the emergency room (ER), out of pocket expenses can escalate quickly. Out of pocket costs for primary care visits range from $179 to $277, urgent care from $175 to $483, and ER from $861 to $2320 depending on the location.3 Major United States (U.S.) cities, especially some of those in the center of the outbreak, have the highest costs for care. With the current COVID-19 contamination issues in medical offices, providers have turned to telehealth to prevent further spread of viral particles and help their patients save money.
Telehealth visits are highly encouraged right now in a hope to flatten the COVID-19 curve by practicing physical distancing. The issue is that some patients are not familiar with how these services work or their cost even though the concept of out of pocket cost has been around for decades. A J.D. Power survey in 2019 showed that only one in ten Americans have tried a telemedicine service.4 Other barriers to maximum telehealth success include: lack of access to the internet, struggling infrastructure, and long wait times to be seen.4
Some of us have become familiar with ways to purchase our medications at the lowest cost, but can we do the same thing for telemedicine visits? Americans deserve to be given the same tools to help them through this current situation, and even continue as telehealth may become more of the standard of care. On March 27th, 2020, a partner of Veradigm, GoodRx, launched a telemedicine marketplace where patients can compare prices of dozens of telemedicine services. Companies are being added daily to further the lowering of costs for patients.
Recently, Medicare announced expanded coverage for telehealth services to aid in patients easily accessing care without the need to travel to a healthcare facility. This expansion of coverage means Medicare can pay for visits conducted via telehealth. Patient engagement platforms, such as FollowMyHealth, specialize in providing tools for providers and their patients to stay connected even in the face of a pandemic. During the COVID-19 crisis, Allscripts clients have increased the number of video visits by 9,000%.
Telehealth visits are growing exponentially, one company even reported their patient visits have increased by 257% nationally since this time last year.4 As a pharmacist, I fully understand the accumulation of costs for services such as transportation, lab work, appointment, x-rays, medications, etc. I want to encourage all patients to take control of their health by spending time researching telehealth that fit best for you and your budget.