Health insurer and care provider Kaiser Permanente is launching a new kind of insurance plan that would provide unlimited access to free virtual care visits.
The four new "Virtual Forward" insurance plan offerings will be available to patients in the Atlantic region starting on Jan. 1 next year. Mark Ruszczyk, a vice president at Kaiser, said the Virtual Forward plan is aimed at patients who are interested primarily in accessing most of their health care visits virtually, but who also want the option of in-person care in certain circumstances. The plan will provide consumers with access to an unlimited number of virtual telemedicine visits, as well as one annual in-person health care visit, with no copays.
Kaiser is introducing this new option during an ongoing massive surge in the use of telemedicine, or remote health care interactions, amid the Covid-19 pandemic. Although the provider has long provided telemedicine services in the region, like many health care organizations, it had to rapidly expand its virtual offerings when Covid-19 hit. During 2020, Kaiser has provided more than 1.3 million virtual appointments via phone and video calls. Between 2019 and 2020, Kaiser reported seeing video visits in the mid-Atlantic region increase by 779%, from 63,000 to more than 557,000.
Ruszczyk said now that so many more patients have been exposed to telemedicine during the pandemic, Kaiser expects consumers' "appetite" for that more accessible and convenient option will persist well beyond the threat of Covid-19. Early on in the pandemic, he said the company was conducting between 85% and 90% of all health care visits virtually. And even now that most normal in-person health services have resumed, Kaiser is still seeing members choose to meet with their doctors via their phones or computers. About half of care visits in Kaiser's network are still conducted virtually.
"We are always thinking about how we can put more affordable health care options out into the marketplace, to remain competitive and relevant, but also to serve the changing needs of users," said Ruszczyk, who is Kaiser's vice president for marketing, sales and business development.
Ruszczyk explained that Virtual Forward plan holders will be able to schedule as many virtual appointments as they need each year with any of their doctors or providers, including in primary care, specialty care, gynecology, ophthalmology, dermatology, urgent care or mental health, without an out-of-pocket charge. They will also get access to one copay-free, in-person primary care visit per year. In addition, he said any care or procedure that is necessary and preventive in nature that must be conducted in-person, such as mammograms, colorectal exams or annual gynecological check-ups, will be covered without copays. Virtual Forward members will be charged fees for any in-person care provided beyond that scope, he said.
Virtual Forward plans will also cover prescriptions filled at Kaiser pharmacies, and will allow care providers across the organization to access a patient's health records virtually to enable efficiency and collaboration in care.
Kaiser wanted to make these new plan options as affordable as possible, Ruszczyk said, to further ensure accessibility. He did not disclose specific cost details, but said Virtual Forward plans will be priced about 20% below Kaiser's standard HMO plans.
Ruszczyk noted the Covid-19 pandemic has highlighted a clear growing need for health plans that cover virtual care. He compared that need to Kaiser's thinking when it began expanding its telemedicine options back in 2013, when the company had assumed it would be used mostly by folks seeking off-hours or urgent care.
"We quickly found there was a larger need even then, that was really driven by access and convenience. Many people who had a choice to see their doctor in- person or virtually, chose the virtual option...it was free, it was easy and it made a lot of sense," Ruszczyk said. "I think people will continue to demand convenient access to care."