Telehealth now Mainstream as Insurers and State Expand Access to Care


Syracuse, NY Comprehensive telehealth legislation was an area of focus in New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo’s 11th State of the State Address. “The COVID-19 pandemic laid bare the inequities in our healthcare system and showed that telehealth is a critical tool to expand access and lower costs for low-income communities, especially for behavioral health support,” said Cuomo, as he took executive action to expand access to remote care. Telehealth is when a patient and a provider communicate by audio, video or text messaging.

“The number of telehealth visits soared in 2020 as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Stephen H. Cohen, M.D., senior vice president and chief medical officer at Excellus BlueCross BlueShield. The insurer processed 2.2 million telehealth claims in 2020, compared to 28,529 in 2019. Behavioral health services, including care for mental health and substance use issues, accounted for 43 percent of telehealth claims in 2020, compared to 25 percent in 2019.

Most adults in upstate New York (77 percent) have heard of telehealth though less than a third have used it, according to a survey commissioned by Excellus BCBS in late 2020. Of those adults who reported using telehealth, 90 percent did so since the outbreak of COVID-19.

Additional survey findings:

The primary reason telehealth is currently used:

  • Required to use because of COVID (59 percent)
  • Convenience (40 percent)
  • Preferred to use because of COVID (34 percent)
  • Cost of visit (8 percent)

The most important features of telehealth:

  • Ability to obtain prescriptions (79 percent)
  • Avoid in-person visits (69 percent)
  • Cost of visit (58 percent)

Excellus BCBS spent $102 million in 2020 to expand telehealth coverage to all members and waive any member cost-share responsibility for telehealth services, regardless of the medical issue. The insurer increased provider reimbursement rates to help replace some of the revenue lost due to the decline in in-office patient visits. The health plan’s provider relations team trained more than 500 health care providers in the use of telehealth technology and proper claims submission for telehealth visits.

“When seeing a health care provider in person isn’t possible, or preferable, telehealth offers an effective alternative,” said Cohen. “Telehealth is here to stay, and our health plan will continue develop and support ways to increase access to this innovative way to get care.”


Excellus BlueCross BlueShield, an independent licensee of the Blue Cross Blue Shield Association, is a nonprofit health plan with 1.5 million upstate New York members. The company’s mission is to help people live healthier and more secure lives through access to high-quality, affordable health care. Its products and services include cost-saving prescription drug discounts, wellness tracking tools and access to telemedicine. With more than 3,500 employees, the company is committed to attracting and retaining a diverse workforce to foster innovation and better serve its members. It also encourages employees to engage in their communities by providing paid volunteer time off as one of many benefits. To learn more, visit ExcellusBCBS.com.