With healthcare benefit costs expected to rise another 5% this year, more large employers like Walmart Inc. and Tyson Foods are looking to telehealth benefits to not only reign in costs, but also provide convenience for busy families.
An August 2017 study of large employers completed by the National Business Group on Health found the total cost of healthcare to be about $13,482 per employee, and projected to rise to an average of $14,156 by 2018. The report found employers typically cover nearly 70% of the costs while employees are responsible for about 30%, or nearly $4,400 this year. Specialty pharmacy was seen as the largest driver in cost increases again in 2018.
Brian Marcotte, CEO of the National Business Group on Health, said employers are recognizing traditional cost control techniques alone are not able to reduce costs. He said more large employers are looking at technology to deliver some cost savings with the growth of telemedicine programs like Doctor on Demand.
The survey found virtually all employers (96%) will make telehealth services available in states where it is allowed. More than half (56%) plan to offer telehealth for behavioral health services, more than double the percentage this year. Telehealth utilization is on the rise, with nearly 20% of employers experiencing employee utilization rates of 8% or higher.
Talk Business & Politics surveyed the three largest corporate employers in the Northwest Arkansas region — Walmart, Tyson Foods and J.B. Hunt — about their adoption of telehealth into employee benefit packages. Walmart said it has been offering Doctor on Demand to its U.S. employee base for several years where permissible by state law. In Arkansas, that ability was just permitted last year. The same was true for J.B. Hunt, which uses MDLive. Telehealth services are fairly new at Tyson Foods, which also uses Doctor on Demand.
HOW IT WORKS
Doctor on Demand partners with employers, health providers and benefit providers to make doctors available around the clock to video conference with patients using a smartphone, tablet or computer with a forward-facing camera.
Walmart said video visits are covered just like regular doctor visits, but they are more convenient because the sick one does not have to drive to a germ-filled doctor’s office and wait to be seen. Walmart said the cost of each visit is covered by eligible plans at 75% after deductible.
For Walmart employees with company insurance, the cost of the video visit is $40, considerably less than a trip to an urgent care clinic. The out-of-pocket costs at local urgent care centers range from $150 to $200. Doctor on Demand also makes psychologist video visits, which costs insured employees of Walmart $50 for a 25-minute session or $95 for a 50-minute session. Any Walmart employee can use the service, those without insurance will incur a $75 fee for a video visit with a medical doctor and $79 for a visit with a psychologist.
Walmart said its employees commonly use the video service for ailments such as fever and chills, congestion, rashes or coughs in children, nausea, mental exhaustion, sadness or anxiety. Walmart notes on its website that Doctor on Demand is not intended to replace an annual in-person exam by a primary care physician. Doctor on Demand also does not prescribe DEA controlled substances and may elect not to treat or prescribe other medications based on what is clinically appropriate.
Walmart said the perks of using Doctor on Demand include lower costs but there is also a time saving benefit as the wait time is typically less than five minutes.
Tyson Foods corporate spokesman Derrick Burleson told Talk Business & Politics the meat giant also recently joined the Doctor on Demand service making it available for its employees.
“Doctor on Demand lets you see a doctor right away, 24/7, from your mobile device or computer. It allows team members to bypass the ER or Urgent Care visits (for non-urgent care), and instead be connected within minutes via video with a U.S.-based, board-certified physician who can diagnose, treat and even prescribe medications, if necessary,” Burleson said.
Tyson said the cost for employees comes down to a range between $20 to $50 per consultation which is much less than an ER visit.
“With state law changes that have allowed us to expand Doctor on Demand, we have seen very positive early results – high early adoption rates and success stories that are being talked about around the company,” said Doug Siepel, senior vice president at Tyson Foods.
He said the convenience is a big deal and it doesn’t matter if the patient is at home or on vacation, they can be assured to get quality service by a certified health professional.
Doctor on Demand’s corporate client base also includes American Airlines, Home Depot, Comcast and United Healthcare. Doctor on Demand said it has a 94% customer retention rate and average patient rating of 4.9 out of 5.
COST SAVINGS GUARDED
Neither Walmart nor Tyson Foods would disclose how much savings were being realized from using Doctor on Demand, although a case study found online showed one client with 13,000 employees who registered 12.5% of company users to the service realized $490,000 in annual medical claim costs while also saving 4,755 hours of work time.
Representatives from J.B. Hunt’s human resources department told Talk Business & Politics telehealth is also offered in its benefits package to employees. The company has been using MDLive, a competitor to Doctor on Demand, in states where permissible for the past few years. The company said it’s been available to its Arkansas-based employees only since legal changes were made in 2017 relaxing the requirements.
Representatives from both J.B. Hunt and Walmart were vocal about the need for further changes in Arkansas law as these national companies couldn’t provide telehealth benefits to their corporate employees prior to the 2017 change.
Arkansas was one of the last holdouts on telehealth access because state law previously said a patient must already have been seen by a doctor in a physical healthcare setting before they could be treated via electronic means. That requirement was partially lifted in 2016 and completely abandoned in 2017 amended legislation.
Healthcare advocates say the law changes do not make Arkansas a leader in expanded access to telemedicine, but it helps bring Arkansas into line with the rest of the U.S.