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Telemedicine helps employees access care at lower cost

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How many expensive emergency room and doctors' office visits could be eliminated if employees with unexpected medical problems could call a physician for assistance?

No one has an exact number, but Bonnie C. Sawdey, vice president of human resources at Crawford & Co. in Atlanta, sees such telemedicine programs as win-win for employers and employees. Those programs “are a great way for employees to access care and at lower costs, which is certainly what you need” with a consumer-driven health plan, Ms. Sawdey said referring to the program Crawford put in place in 2014.

For nearly a year, Crawford employees have had access to Teladoc Inc., offered through Crawford's insurer Aetna Inc.

After filling out a medical profile when they sign up for the program, employees can dial a toll-free number and talk to a board-certified physician about such conditions as respiratory, ear and urinary tract infections, allergies, colds and flu, sore throats and pink eye. Teladoc doctors, who have access to the profiles, can in turn call in a prescription to a pharmacy.

The employee's cost for the consultation and assistance from the Teladoc provider is $40, far less than making an appointment for an office visit to a doctor — to say nothing of the time saved.

An example provided by Ms. Sawdey illustrates the savings: A female employee has coverage through one of Crawford's consumer driven health care plans in which the deductible is $1,500 for single coverage. The employee suffers from seasonal allergies and develops a sinus infection. The employee believes she needs an antibiotic. If she contacts Teladoc, her out-of-pocket cost will be $40 for the “appointment,” plus the cost of the prescription, which in this case, would be $46, Ms. Sawdey estimated. That puts the employee's out-of-pocket expense at $86.

By contrast, if the employee had made an appointment with her primary care physician, she would pay the full cost of the office visit, which Ms. Sawdey estimates would be $126 in this example.

Add the $46 for the antibiotic, and the employee's out-of-pocket cost comes to $172, or more than twice as much compared with the Teladoc program.

The Teladoc program also can save Crawford money, particularly when employees have met their deductible and the company has to cover more of the expense for medical treatment.