COVID-19 pandemic has elevated virtual care into the mainstream, creating opportunities to increase access to care, including clinical laboratory testing, and drive down healthcare costs
As the COVID-19 pandemic fuels demand for virtual healthcare, Cigna is acquiring telehealth provider MDLIVE in a move that may indicate the insurance giant anticipates virtual visits playing a major role in healthcare delivery going forward. And, with each acquisition within the telehealth space, the need for clinical laboratories and pathology groups to have a strategy to respond to this trend increases.
The acquisition of MDLIVE by Cigna’s health services subsidiary Evernorth is expected to be completed in the second quarter of 2021, pending regulatory approval, according to an Evernorth press release.
Evernorth, noted Becker’s Hospital Review, is a division of Cigna that “includes pharmacy benefit manager Express Scripts, specialty pharmacy Accredo, and the rest of Cigna’s health service product lines.” And that Evernorth focuses on, “… benefit management, behavioral and clinical care, pharmacy, and intelligence.”
“Customers expect more convenient care interactions and COVID-19 has rapidly accelerated this need. We see an immediate opportunity to build a new model of care delivery, one that delivers a connected experience with greater affordability, predictability, and simplicity,” Wentworth said in the press release.
The MDLIVE website states the telehealth company’s provider network includes physicians who are board certified in:
- Internal medicine,
- Family practice,
- Emergency medicine, and
The company also provides counseling and behavioral health services by licensed mental health professionals.
Virtual Care Expanded Rapidly Due to COVID-19 Pandemic
Cigna was an early investor in MDLIVE. According to the company’s investors page, other investors include:
- Health Care Service Corporation (HCSC), a Chicago-based mutual legal reserve company and independent licensee of the Blue Cross and Blue Shield Association.
- Sentara Healthcare, a not-for-profit that operates more than 100 sites of care across Virginia and North Carolina.
- Sutter Health, a not-for-profit integrated health delivery system headquartered in Sacramento, Calif., that operates 24 acute care hospitals and more than 200 clinics in Northern California.
- And various venture capital and private equity firms.
Cigna began investing in virtual care years before the COVID-19 pandemic arrived in America. In 2018, members of Cigna’s employee-sponsored health plans were given access to virtual urgent care services. In 2019, the partnership was expanded to include online appointments with psychiatrists and behavior health counselors, while some primary care services were added last year.
Then, according to Cigna’s Virtual Investment Day Excerpt Video, virtual care expanded rapidly during the COVID-19 pandemic, with the use of telehealth jumping 46% in 2020 compared to an 11% increase in 2019.
That trend was highlighted last month in a report published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine (AJPM), titled, “Who Is (and Is Not) Receiving Telemedicine Care During the COVID-19 Pandemic.” The study’s authors found a twentyfold increase in telehealth visits starting in March 2020 among six million people with employer-based health insurance, while office-based encounters fell by almost 50%.
Telehealth Drives New Model of Virtual Healthcare
In the Cigna video, Cigna President and CEO David Cordani says telehealth will be an important driver behind a new model of healthcare delivery.
“The emergence of virtual care is an important example of this,” he states. “We have seen consistent growth in virtual care over the past decade and it has rapidly accelerated further during the COVID pandemic. At Cigna, we see this trend continuing and accelerating further, moving well beyond urgent care to primary, coordinated chronic and behavioral care.”
Cordani added that the MDLIVE acquisition will not only increase patient access to care, but also help Cigna drive down healthcare costs to “below CPI (Consumer Price Index) and ultimately to zero or less.”
Evernorth, however, does not appear to be signaling that its expanded network of virtual providers will serve as gatekeepers for patients scheduling in-office visits with their providers. The Evernorth press release states MDLIVE’s 24/7 virtual care platform will “complement—not replace—the way customers and patients interact with their existing providers.” The goal, Evernorth says, is to achieve:
- Earlier identification and diagnosis of critical care needs;
- Faster and more seamless referrals to high-performing providers, including specialists and behavioral health; and
- More convenient access to appropriate, affordable sites of service, and pharmaceutical fulfillment.
“From cost to complexity to quality, there is tremendous potential for progress in healthcare,” Evernorth President and Chief Operating Officer Eric Palmer said in the company press release. “As one, Evernorth and MDLIVE can accelerate meaningful change. MDLIVE will be part of the new, differentiated, and future-state care solutions that improve the patient experience, close the patient-provider accessibility gap, and bring providers opportunities to augment the services they currently offer. We’ll also have the opportunity to expand the reach of MDLIVE’s capabilities to Evernorth’s clients, as well as Cigna’s US Medical customers and clients.”
Opportunities for Clinical Laboratories That Can Support Virtual Care
Evernorth’s acquisition of MDLIVE expands Cigna’s health services portfolio of healthcare services and may provide opportunities for clinical laboratories that are prepared to support telehealth providers.
As virtual healthcare networks become a signature part of employee-sponsored health plans, clinical laboratories and pathology groups will need to keep pace with a changing healthcare landscape that puts a premium on remote and virtual visits. Outreach to health plans may be necessary to ensure clinical laboratories are included in an ever-growing virtual network.
—Andrea Downing Peck