Reforming Delivery
Walgreens to the Rescue!

The LA Times reports that Walgreens is now offering digital visits to doctors in five states. The visits are priced at $49, lower than the typical cost of an in-person doctor’s visit. The chain plans to expand into twenty more states before the year is out. But there are big obstacles keeping a lid on telemedicine:

Payments are also an issue. Right now, [president of the American Academy of Family Physicians Robert] Wergin said, insurance companies won’t reimburse him for virtual appointments.

“The only way for me to have a business model is for you to come in and have a visit,” he said […]

To expand, however, Walgreens and MDLIVE will need changes in state regulations in the 25 states were such visits are not permitted.

Loosening up regulations restricting telemedicine is one of the easy fixes waiting to be made in our health care system. Allowing doctors to claim reimbursement on digital visits is another. Yet opposition to telemedicine persists: the AMA, for example, has endorsed digital visits only on the condition that doctors get licensed in every state in which they see patients.

The Walgreens decision shows that this opposition hasn’t discouraged interest in telemedicine, however, and the big chain has the market power to raise the profile and popularity of digital doc visits further. Increasing the availability of telemedicine won’t solve our health care cost problem on its own, but it could help, especially for cash-strapped Americans in need of primary care. Indeed, methods that deliver care to Americans more cheaply, rather than just new kinds of drugs and treatments, should be a higher priority of U.S. health care policy.

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