More Providers Charge for Telemedicine, Phone Visits and Doctor E-Mails

More hospitals and insurers have started charging patients for virtual care services as they have grown in usage and providers are spending more time meeting patients in telehealth appointments and responding to their e-mails.

Many hospital systems have started billing patients for e-mails they send to their physicians and, depending on the level of out-of-pocket expenses in their plan, they may pay just a few dollars for a copay or up to $100 if they have a high deductible.

With these forms of communication growing in use, employers may want to remind their employees to look at their plans’ benefits summaries to see how much they will have to pay for these services.

The hospitals argue that physicians spend a significant amount of time responding to inquiries and it takes just as much time for them to conduct telemedicine and phone appointments as it does in-person visits.

A short five-minute session with a patient on a phone or video appointment will typically result in associated work, including reviewing the patient’s chart, updating notes and putting in orders for medications, tests or referrals.

Billing under insurance

The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services introduced Medicare billing codes for telemedicine in 2019, paving the way for providers to allow patients to seek reimbursement for messages their doctors send them using an electronic portal.

Under the rules, a provider can bill for a message only if it’s in response to a patient inquiry and requires at least five minutes of the doctor’s time.

Many of the country’s health insurers have followed Medicare’s lead, reimbursing hospitals for doctors’ e-mails. In turn, insurers may charge patients a copay or they may have to pay for the service fully if they have a deductible they must first meet. Even then, fees for these types of appointments are typically lower than for in-person visits.

It should be noted that there may not be fees associated with some services such as asking a doctor for a prescription refill or follow-up care.

How it’s being billed

The amount that patients are being billed varies among hospital systems and insurers.

According to recent surveys, out-of-pocket telemedicine visits are an average of $30-75 nationally, with most visits at around $40-50. According to Becker’s Hospital Review:

  • Medicare pays around $50 per televisit on average.
  • Mayo Clinic started charging $50 for some online emails written by its doctors after a surge in mail volume.
  • Humana’s health plan On Hand charges $0 to $5 per visit.
  • Walmart offers its employees $4 telehealth appointments.
  • SSM Health, a hospital system in St. Louis, charges $25.
  • Summa Health, a hospital system in Akron, Ohio, charges $30.

The takeaway

Hospitals and providers are all charging different amounts for televisits, phone visits and their doctors sending e-mails. As well, insurers have different cost-sharing structures for their enrollees.

It’s important that you warn your employees to read plan summaries of these costs if they are regular users of these services, as health plan coverage will vary depending on deductible and copay levels. Doing this can help them avoid surprise bills, particularly if they have grown used to paying nothing for such services.

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