N.Y. health insurers to offer virtual doc visits

New York becomes the fourth state to provide virtual physician visits

Two BlueCross BlueShield insurance organizations in upstate New York announced today that they will offer their members and employers virtual physician visits beginning this summer, making New York the fourth state to provide these types of services.

BlueCross BlueShield of Western New York, BlueShield of Northeastern New York and technology services provider American Well Inc. said the Online Care service will allow members to talk with physicians in real time through a private online chat network or through a voice over IP phone call.

The service also offers video chat and instant messages. Members can sign on to BlueCross BlueShield's Web sites and look for physicians who are available online in various specialty areas. Telehealth is also playing a major role in wireless technologies that will allow physicians to monitor patients with chronic illnesses.

Initially, Blue Cross' Online Care service will be rolled out in the western New York area , while service to northeastern New York is anticipated by the fourth quarter of this year. In the second year of the service rollout, non-members and the uninsured throughout New York State will be able to participate.

According to Cynthia A. Ambres, chief medical officer for the Blue Cross Blue Shield organizations in upstate New York, non-members, "the uninsured or underinsured," will pay a fee to participate in the virtual service.

"So people not able to go to a doctor will be able to talk to a doctor for say $40 or $45," Ambres said.

Ambres said the service also addresses continuity of care, so if a primary physician cannot treat a condition, he or she can access a specialist online and have a three-way call with a patient to address the issue.

If the specialist or physician that a member wants is unavailable, users can request to be placed into a virtual waiting room where they'll receive a call back as soon as one is available. Physicians, in turn, schedule time when they're available.

Ambres said physicians have been performing a type of virtual patient visit for years through e-mail, but they were never compensated for their time through that method. The new virtual physician visits will provide them with some compensation for their time.

"The introduction of Online Care is in line with our strategic vision to make health care more accessible and less costly for the communities we serve," Alphonso O'Neil-White, CEO of the two BlueCross BlueShield entities, said in a statement. "Online Care is an innovative solution that will allow us to bring high quality, informed and timely care to our members when and where they need it."

New York is the fourth state to offer virtual physician services. The Hawaii Medical Service Association went live with the same Online Care service a little over a year ago, as did Minnesota. OptumHealth, a division of UnitedHealth Group, the country's largest health insurer, started offering NowClinic, a virtual physician service, in Texas earlier this year and plans to roll it out nationwide later this year.

While online, a patient's information becomes available to physicians through Microsoft 's online e-health records service HealthVault , allowing physicians to also check if patients have fallen behind on care unrelated to the call, such as vaccinations or blood glucose monitoring.

"So it's an opportunity to close the gaps in care as well," Ambres said. "That's an opportunity for me to see what you may have missed."

Lucas Mearian covers storage, disaster recovery and business continuity, financial services infrastructure and health care IT for Computerworld . Follow Lucas on Twitter at @lucasmearian or subscribe to Lucas's RSS feed . His e-mail address is lmearian@computerworld.com .

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Copyright © 2010 IDG Communications, Inc.

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