See more of the story

UnitedHealthcare is now offering telehealth appointments with no co-pay or out-of-pocket cost as a benefit.

The move is intended to improve access to care, said Dr. Donna O'Shea, chief medical officer of population health for UnitedHealthcare. Sometimes members in high-deductible plans delay medical appointments to avoid out-of-pocket costs.

"Members were pushing off simple health care visits," O'Shea said.

UnitedHealthcare estimates, based on its claims data, that 25% of emergency room visits could be handled virtually. The telehealth visits are available 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

"We want our members to know that they don't have to wait to get an appointment," O'Shea said.

Optum Virtual Care is one of main providers of the telehealth services. Minnetonka-based UnitedHealth Group is the parent of both health insurer UnitedHealthcare and Optum.

The new benefit takes effect with the renewal of a heath plan or for newly effective plans. More than 250,000 UnitedHealthcare members can now use the benefit.

By the end of 2024, the company wants to have more than 5 million members in fully insured employer-sponsored plans able to use the perk.

The onset of the pandemic saw a sharp uptick in the use of telehealth. A survey from the American Medical Association found that 80% of physicians used telehealth visits in 2022, nearly triple the rate in 2019.

So far this year, 15% of all ambulatory clinic visits for Minneapolis-based Allina Health have been virtual, said Tim Burke, an Allina spokesman. Mental health is the busiest category for telehealth; 65% of those appointments are virtual.

Allina offers On-Demand Virtual Urgent Care. The use of that service is up 15% year-over-year and is accessed by 40 to 60 patients daily.

O'Shea said virtual appointments can help lower the risk for developing more serious medical conditions.

"To get these problems taken care of quick and early really prevents those more urgent, need-to-be in-person emergency room visits," O'Shea said.