Health insurers have begun to consolidate their position in the telehealth market, as indicated by a recent move by Cigna Corp. to acquire MDLive Inc. Meanwhile, lawmakers are beginning to consider the future of telehealth regulation and payment, AIS Health reported.

Cigna’s Evernorth health services arm announced on Feb. 26 that it had reached an agreement with MDLive to acquire the virtual care provider, according to MDLive’s website. MDLive has been available in-network as a primary care option to all members of Cigna’s commercial plans since January 2020.

Ashraf Shehata, national sector leader for health care and life sciences at KPMG, says he expects even more efforts by payers to offer telehealth benefits directly to members.

He adds that the COVID-19 pandemic has acted as an accelerant for telemedicine use. He expects patients will continue to demand telemedicine options even after the pandemic subsides, and that payers will see that demand as an opportunity to narrow the gap between themselves and members.

“We saw that with massive and immediate uptake of the platforms — all the platforms, I should say. Not only did [payers] use their existing platform relationships, but they added new platforms because demand is so high,” Shehata explains.

Shehata adds that robust, internal telemedicine options offer plans an opportunity to exercise leverage in negotiations with provider systems, which have sought to have virtual visits reimbursed at the same rate as traditional visits.

The payment equity question is central to the coming regulatory battle over telemedicine. Payer and plan sponsor lobbying groups will square off against providers in Congress over whether virtual visits should be reimbursed at the same rate as in-person visits. Early in the pandemic, the Trump administration mandated that Medicare must reimburse most telehealth visits at parity with traditional visits.

Also at issue is whether the full menu of services authorized in response to the pandemic will continue to be eligible for Medicare reimbursement. CMS expanded the types of services that could be delivered via telehealth to Medicare beneficiaries, temporarily adding 135 services. Unless Congress acts or the Biden administration issues new rules, the remaining expanded services will expire either at the end of 2021, or when the pandemic public health emergency ends.

In a March 2 hearing of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce’s Subcommittee on Health, legislators indicated that they are studying both issues.