By Kim Keck

It seems almost surreal that just five months ago, telemedicine was still widely considered a “nice to have” and not a “need to have.”

As soon as the coronavirus pandemic hit Rhode Island with full force, Blue Cross & Blue Shield of Rhode Island quickly made the decision to provide coverage for telemedicine services by all of its in-network providers with no cost to members. Telemedicine visits surged 50% in March, and now virtual health-care interactions are on pace to top $1 billion nationally in 2020, according to Forrester Research.

Before COVID-19, telemedicine was used primarily for sick visits, and heavily focused in rural areas or areas with limited access to health care. But as COVID-19 started to spread and patients sought ways to receive health care safely, use of telemedicine increased exponentially. Aiding that usage — besides health insurers like Blue Cross & Blue Shield covering the service — were relaxed technology requirements, expanded Medicare coverage and reimbursement for audio-only visits.

It’s clear that our health-care system has changed drastically since March. Hospitals and doctors have made significant investments in telemedicine. And patients have quickly adapted, appreciating the conveniences and expediency offered by virtual interactions with providers.

Which pieces of the telemedicine puzzle will carry forward to “normal” times? There are numerous considerations: financial, socioeconomic, governmental and technological. It’s too early to judge telemedicine’s effectiveness for some conditions, and it remains to be seen if telemedicine can ultimately be as effective as in-person care.

The answers to these complex questions won’t come overnight. But the pandemic has catalyzed an unparalleled shift in medicine, and telemedicine has emerged as a leading player in the new landscape. Thinking futuristically, we can envision a reorientation of health care, where advanced technology creates the kind of seamless and integrated experiences it has in other areas of our lives, leading to better outcomes and more reasonable costs.

For all these reasons, Blue Cross & Blue Shield of Rhode Island enthusiastically supports Governor Raimondo’s proposed budget article on telemedicine, which strikes a balance to ensure continued access to telemedicine during these uncertain times while maintaining appropriate protections against potential fraud, waste and abuse. The proposal extends telemedicine coverage through June 30, 2021, and would allow for more information to be gathered and analyzed before significant long-term changes to coverage.

We’ve only just begun the conversation about the future of telemedicine, but we are already making progress — and passing Governor Raimondo’s proposal is a great first step toward focusing our efforts. At Blue Cross & Blue Shield of Rhode Island, we look forward to working with Governor Raimondo, the General Assembly and the provider community in the weeks and months ahead to advance the dialogue, on behalf of Rhode Islanders in every community in our state. Everyone deserves access to high-quality health care they can afford.

Kim Keck is president and CEO of Blue Cross & Blue Shield of Rhode Island.