Minnesota Blues launch online doctor visits

Physicians will be reimbursed the same as for a regular office appointment.

By Pamela Lewis Dolan — Posted April 29, 2009

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Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota announced it is introducing a system for patients to receive care through online visits with physicians.

The service will first become available to Blues employees and their dependents, with expansion to all Blues members and employer groups planned for next year.

The system will allow patients to log into a secure site at any time to be seen, via webcam, by a physician in the Minnesota Blues network. The visits will be reimbursed the same as regular office visits, with the same patient co-pays. Any licensed physician who contracts with the Minnesota Blues will be eligible to provide the services, and will be paid per visit.

The plan has partnered with American Well to develop the system. The Boston-based company provided the technology for a similar online visit program that the Hawaii Medical Service Assn., Hawaii's Blue Cross Blue Shield-affiliated plan, launched in January. The HMSA opened the service to anyone, including people without health insurance, who have the option of paying with a credit card.

The Hawaii Medical Assn. did not issue an opinion on the system at the time it launched, saying only that it was taking a wait-and-see approach. Roy Schoenberg, MD, MPH, president and CEO of American Well, said one lesson the company learned from its Hawaii experience is to involve all stakeholders in the development process, including employers, payers and physicians.

The Minnesota Blues is in discussion with the Minnesota Medical Assn. about the plan.

"As a general concept, we support online innovation and convenience," said Noel Peterson, MD, MMA president. "On that part, we are there. But this is an approach that basically is taking patients away from their primary care physician and that's where the coordination of care should go."

Dr. Peterson said while the Blues is willing to pay physicians who provide online services through its program, the insurer has not expressed interest in paying primary care physicians to provide similar services for their own patients.

But Pam Lux, spokeswoman for the Minnesota Blues, said that the plan does pays physicians for e-visits, and that physicians could use the American Well system to provide Web visits to their own patients.

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