Blue Cross plan to provide telehealth

Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Louisiana this fall will offer members of a new health insurance plan the ability to consult their doctors via their iPads, iPhones, Android devices and webcam-equipped PCs.

It’s the first time the state’s largest health insurer will offer a telehealth benefit.

“This is a huge, I would say a landmark shift for us,” Chief Medical Officer Dr. David Carmouche said.

Blue Cross is launching the service as part of its Quality Blue Primary Care plan, which pays physicians more for keeping patients healthy. The program emphasizes the management of chronic diseases, such as high blood pressure and diabetes.

Blue Cross made the move for a couple of reasons. First, telehealth helps address concerns about access to care; and, second, online visits can help control costs in a number of ways, including improving the management of chronic diseases.

There are a significant number of people who will get health insurance as a result of the federal Affordable Care Act, Carmouche said. Many of those people will be looking to access care for the first time.

In addition, the United States is mired in a health care affordability crisis, Carmouche said. In Louisiana and the Southeast, those costs are largely driven by chronic diseases.

By following up with patients online and using the platform to educate people about their conditions, Blue Cross hopes to help patients do a better job of managing their chronic illnesses, he said.

Blue Cross plans to offer the telehealth benefit directly to some self-insured employers, and some firms have begun asking about the service, Carmouche said. National health insurance companies already offer telemedicine services to large, national employers.

The LSU Health Science Center in Shreveport has been offering online visits to patients at rural health clinics — and some hospitals — since 2008 in an area that covers about two-thirds of the state. The LSU Health Science Center in New Orleans handles the southeastern part of the state.

Dr. Edward Griffin, who has headed the telemedicine program in Shreveport since 2010, said the program now does online consults with about 140 patients a month.

The setup allows the physician to examine the patient through a webcam. Digital equipment allows the doctor to listen to the patient’s heartbeat, examine his ears or look at high-resolution images of skin lesions or rashes.

“Basically anything I can see or hear I can do,” said Griffin, associate professor of clinical medicine at LSU Health Shreveport.

The big advantage for the patients is that they can be seen more quickly than they could if they had to wait for an in-person visit, Griffin said. The clinics are so swamped with patients that physicians are booked far in advance.

The telehealth consults also save patients travel time and expense, Griffin said. A resident of Sicily Island or Lake Providence, who has to drive to Shreveport, is looking at using a lot of gas, not to mention hours on the road.

Blue Cross expects the use of online consults will be limited in the first few years, with fewer than 10 percent of patients using the service, Carmouche said. But that number will increase over time, as people learn about the service and how it works.