High-tech house calls to fit the bill

The key to improving the cost of healthcare lies in making healthcare cost-effective. And Roy Schoenberg thinks he has solved that riddle.

Schoenberg, president and CEO of Boston-based American Well, is making the rounds these days with his Online Care product, a Web-based portal that allows people to connect with physicians for online medical consultations while also providing those physicians with compensation for their time.

“What we’ve done here is introduced a whole new dimension to healthcare,” he said. “We are the magic glue in the middle,” allowing healthcare providers and patients to work out care delivery “on their own terms.”

Hailed by the American Telemedicine Association as an example of the healthcare delivery system of the future and a recent White House invitee, Schoenberg attended America’s Health Insurance Plans Institute 2010 this past June in Las Vegas to tout the company’s latest two successes: A new contract with Indianapolis-based WellPoint, Inc., the nation’s largest health benefits company by medical membership, and an announcement that Blue Cross Blue Shield of Western New York and Blue Shield of Northeastern New York have gone live with the Online Care platform.

American Well basically creates an online portal through which patients can contact physicians from their homes, by video, phone or secure chat. The company contracts with health plans, that create a network of credentialed physicians from their established provider networks who can review clinical information, chat with the patient, prescribe medication and suggest follow-up care.

The goal, Schoenberg says, is to reduce wasteful spending in the form of unnecessary trips to the emergency room or doctor’s office, while allowing doctors to be reimbursed for the consultations.

Cynthia Ambres, senior vice president and chief medical officer for both BCBSWNY and BSNENY, said the two Blues organizations spent the better part of a decade trying to find a way to properly compensate physicians for their time spent on phones and in giving medical opinions outside the realm of the normal doctor visit. By allowing them to link into an online portal, she said, they’re getting that compensation.
“Physicians have embraced this,” she said. “And for working people who are regular Internet users, this is very attractive to them.”

“Providing more people with access to insurance – a primary goal of healthcare reform – was just the beginning,” added Alphonso O’Neill-White, president and CEO of BCBSWNY/BSNENY. “Through Online Care NY, our plans are addressing the very real need to transform how, when and where they receive care. Without it, physicians will become even more overwhelmed while patients ignore healthcare needs or continue to inappropriately use urgent care. Now, both physicians and patients alike have an option that better meets their changing needs.”
WellPoint plans on rolling out the Online Care provider platform to select markets in its 34-million-member network by the fourth quarter of this year.

“WellPoint is committed to helping improve the access of all Americans to quality, affordable healthcare,” said Dijuana Lewis, executive vice president and chief executive officer of WellPoint’s Comprehensive Health Solutions business, in a press release. “We recognize the need for healthcare to become more accessible and convenient than ever before, especially for individuals living in rural areas. We are pleased to work with American Well in the development of this new option.”

While contracting with health plans — American Well has had successful launches in Hawaii and Minnesota, among other locations, as well as the St. Louis-based Ascension Health network – remains the core of the company’s business, Schoenberg said he’s excited to see American Well head in two new directions. The company has developed a platform for physicians’ offices, called Online Care Team Addition, that allows physicians to link with specialists and patients; and is also offering Online Care to its first large employer, Delta Air Lines, through a partnership with Golden Valley, Minn.-based OptumHealth.

In addition, American Well signed an agreement in April with Rite Aid, paving the way for Online Care portals in select Rite Aid pharmacies around the country. The arrangement, the first between American Well and a drugstore chain, brings pharmacists into the Online Care loop.

“Frankly, there are more pharmacies close to where people live than there are emergency rooms,” Schoenberg pointed out.

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