Virtual doctor visits likely to continue after pandemic despite insurance coverage cuts

SAN FRANCISCO (KGO) -- Visiting your doctor virtually has become more and more common in recent months due to the pandemic, but what is the future of such visits moving forward?

Lucy Felsenthal loves to ski. It's an activity she can enjoy with the entire family. But a tumble she took on the slopes is one she'll never forget.

"Oh, oh, you okay, Luce?" her father is heard asking as his daughter screams.

The fall back in 2018 blew out her knee. Then this February, a second ski accident put her back on crutches.

"Someone skied in front of me and I went, eeet! Then I fell and couldn't get back up," Lucy recalled.

With the help of her new puppy, Mini, Lucy is doing as well as could be expected.

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Her days have been filled with doctor appointments.

But telehealth has eased that strain for both her and her mom.

"It's saved us hours and hours of going to the doctor, really, and driving," her mom Amy Weiss Felsenthal said.

At UCSF alone, telehealth visits went from an average of 189 appointments per day prior to COVID-19, to 2,500 during the pandemic.

But doctor Nelson Branco of the American Academy of Pediactrics, and also a physician in Larkspur, warns some health insurers will cut off coverage of telehealth.

"There are many insurance companies who have said that at the end of the emergency coverage related to COVID-19, they will no longer be covering telehealth visits," he said.

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In California, Cigna is looking at ending telehealth coverage July 31.

United Health Care has extended benefits for virtual visits through September.

Kaiser patients will be covered through the end of the year.

Anthem Blue Cross says there will be no change until further notice.

However, the end of any telehealth coverage in the state will just be temporary.

A new state law starting in 2021 requires health plans to extend coverage of telehealth visits at the same rate as in-person visits.

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Dr. Marissa Raymond-Flesch says patients will be able to access specialists far away from their home.

Anyone who lacks transportation can more easily see their doctor.

And she says physicians are learning there doesn't always need to be a physical exam to gain information about a patient's health.

"We're learning what other ways we can gather relevant data so that we can still provide high quality evidence-based care," said Raymond-Flesch.

"Telehealth provides a level of access and a way to care for our patients that is here to stay," said Branco.

A study by UCSF found virtual visits to the doctor's office could become the new norm in California.

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