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How COVID-19 transformed the telehealth industry

Purchaser Business Group on Health CEO & President Elizabeth Mitchell joins Yahoo Finance Live to break down how the COVID-19 pandemic continues to accelerate telemedicine and the transformation of virtual care.

Video Transcript

- Well, employers are juggling new uncertainties related to health benefit costs as they slowly ease back into a new reality. With employees returning to the office, there are concerns around COVID-19, the growth of telehealth, as well as the growing demand for mental health as well.

Let's bring in Elizabeth Mitchell. She's the CEO and President of Purchaser Business Group on Health. Elizabeth, it's great to talk to you today. We've also got "Yahoo Finance"'s Anjalee Khemlani joining in on the conversation. I know you've been speaking to a lot of your clients, big US companies who juggling all of these cost benefit issues. What's the number one concern? And how significantly has this reality shifted for employers during this pandemic?

ELIZABETH MITCHELL: Well, the cost of health care has always been too high, and you're seeing large employers have economic pressures that they haven't had before. So they are looking at how do they buy the best quality health care for their employees. I think that they remain absolutely committed to the health and well-being of their employees. They are willing to pay a fair price for the care and coverage that achieves that for their populations. But they are really reconsidering how they go about that.

Telehealth is a really big improvement. They are getting access to care in rural areas for limited specialties that they haven't had before like mental health. But there's a long way to go to really innovate in the market and get high value care for these employers.

ANJALEE KHEMLANI: Elizabeth, I'm so glad you brought that up. Telehealth seems to be one of those areas that more people are paying attention to. But beyond that, what are some other thinkings about plan designs with telehealth built in that employers are looking at right now?

ELIZABETH MITCHELL: I would say large employers are looking for fair total cost of care. They want high quality, and they know that the quality really varies by physician group, by hospital. And they're really hoping to make sure that their employees only go to the highest quality providers. So this has been particularly challenging in a pandemic, where they can't go see their primary care physician, for example. And they are looking for alternative ways to make sure they have access to that care, home-based care, telehealth, as I said. So they are looking for innovations in care delivery that really meet the needs of their employees.

- There's also kind of this strange train we were talking about, perhaps, maybe earlier on in the pandemic with people putting off those regular doctor visits because of COVID concerns and the costs associated with that. We know-- I mean, we've covered it for a while, how much those costs add up the longer and longer you wait. So I mean, we talk about the costs this year and last year. But I wonder what the effects are of maybe that playing out longer, particularly when you talk about maybe an aging workforce and those costs to some big companies.

ELIZABETH MITCHELL: Absolutely. And my members are looking at really investing in primary care. They know that robust primary care will help keep people healthy. And we need mental health delivered through primary care. They need access in their communities, in their homes. And frankly, the current delivery system is not doing that. So they are looking for more direct relationships with physicians, and how they can support robust primary care to make sure their employees stay healthy.

ANJALEE KHEMLANI: Anjalee here. I know that you were talking about innovation, and sort of the views on what can be done there and how to integrate that. Innovation has been a key word when we're talking about drug pricing and the reason why certain therapeutics and medication costs so much. Any thoughts about the drug pricing issue coming back into the mainstream, especially in Congress right now, and how it might affect the future discussions?

ELIZABETH MITCHELL: Absolutely. Drug prices are a major driver of health care costs for employers. And we will be very active in that debate, and we have for a long time. Again, these are private companies who support the market. But right now the market, particularly around drug pricing and provider pricing, is really dysfunctional.

So they are looking, potentially, for federal intervention because the pricing, particularly around hospitals, is really just not sustainable. And with the new transparency rules, we're starting to see some of the egregious pricing patterns that hospitals and other providers have engaged in, and they're looking for new accountability there. So there is going to be, I think, an appetite for more intervention through federal policy.

ANJALEE KHEMLANI: Absolutely. I'm glad you brought that up because I know that for the longest time, through employers has been sort of where innovation takes place. Telehealth and other remote monitoring, especially for chronic patients, is coming up as a conversation. Any thoughts about how to integrate that and whether that will be a direct relationship, or are you waiting for plans and insurance relationships to take place first?

ELIZABETH MITCHELL: Well, I would say ideally the insurers would have done some of this innovation. Frankly, my members are big enough that they are going to do it themselves if the health plans don't. So they are looking at alternative innovative arrangements, maybe more directly. As I mentioned, they absolutely want to leverage technology.

Again, telehealth isn't even a new technology. Barriers have been, frankly, regulatory and payment. So they will be paying for telehealth visits. Think about you might have a lot of psychiatrists in Los Angeles, but the need for mental health care might be in rural areas. That is absolutely an opportunity for telehealth. And how we pay for that and how we ensure access to that will make a big difference. So they are looking at, again, much more active intervention in care delivery and in the market.

- And Elizabeth, I know you've testified on this issue, on the future of telehealth. I wonder, from a legislative standpoint, what you think specifically needs to be done to make sure that the market catches up with this new reality where telehealth really is the first option for many patients.

ELIZABETH MITCHELL: Well I think we have barriers of practicing across state lines that need to be revisited because again, not every state will have the specialties that people need. We need to really think about this from the patient perspective, and we probably need to move away from some of the more antiquated regulatory models that limit access through telehealth.

And again, payment. Frankly, practices have not been reimbursed for telehealth, even when it adds value. We know from our own research that patients like it, physicians like it. It's really time to make it more widely available, but within a total cost framework. It needs to be one of the key tools that providers use to actually get care to people when they need it, where they need it, and reduce unnecessary spending.

- All right. PBGH CEO Elizabeth Mitchell alongside Yahoo Finance's Anjalee Khemlani. Appreciate you both for that. Be well. We're going to take another quick break after a "Stock on the Move" update.