Insurance companies predict changes to premiums and virtual care after COVID-19

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TORONTO — When COVID-19 started spreading through Canada, the president of one of the country’s largest insurance companies was thinking about mothers who have to tote kids to a waiting room and keep them entertained for hours just to see a doctor.

Sun Life Canada president Jacques Goulet knew his insurance business had a virtual care program offering online visits with medical professionals to help such people, but saw COVID-19 as an opportunity to do more.

On Tuesday, Sun Life rolled out free access to Lumino Health Virtual Care, a platform that allows Canadians to connect with medical professionals digitally by giving them the ability to find and book an appointment with a psychologist, physiotherapist or other paramedical providers.

It’s being offered free of charge until June to group benefits clients enrolled in extended health care benefits — just one sign of how Canada’s most prominent insurance companies are ramping up their virtual care offerings, which they expect to be a boon beyond COVID-19.

“What I see changing in a fairly big way is how certain services are rendered,” Goulet told The Canadian Press. “One thing that’s going to change in a big way going forward is companies essentially incorporating virtual  care into their benefits program where it’s not enabled.”

Sun Life’s offering — a partnership with Montreal-based Dialogue Technologies — joins a referral network the company already runs with Akira, EQ Care and Maple, and is part of a slew of other virtual care services insurance brands are backing.

Manulife works with Akira to offer Healthcare Online, which gives users access to virtual medical consults, and Canada Life Assurance Co. also has virtual care offerings from Dialogue including its Chloe chatbot, which aggregates public health information for patients.

Demand for Dialogue products has been brisk, co-founder and chief executive Cherif Habib said.

“Very early in the crisis it was clear to us that we were going to play a big role in this,” he said. “We were already planning to grow significantly in 2020, but of course, because of this crisis and because of the central role that we can play in being helpful, we need to grow even faster and hire even more people.”

Dialogue is in the midst of adding 250 employees, including nurse clinicians and practitioners, social workers and psychologists to keep up with a “sharp” increase in patients.

Over at Manulife, President and Chief Executive Michael Doughty said the company has been rising to the demands of COVID-19 by reminding customers about its virtual offerings, which includes a digital claims service it has long provided but knows is handy amid a pandemic.

“Obviously risk is part of our DNA and we have put a lot of time and effort into preparing ourselves to be able to operate in environments like this,” he said. “Not that we look forward to them, but we’re ready for them.”

Manulife, he said, has recently experienced fewer calls about dental and massage claims and more from customers with travel insurance and retirement queries, causing the company to bring in reinforcement.

“We’ve gone back to Manulife alumni that have left us in recent years, and said, ‘would you be interested in coming back to help our customers at a time where we’re experiencing heightened volumes?’ and we’ve had actually great success there,” Doughty said.

“We put out a call to people who can help with some of our customer contacts, like people that are in a sales role that understand the products really well at a time where…sales are down.”

Telehealth services across the country have been seeing demand surge since the start of COVID-19. Telehealth Ontario, for example, had to add 1,300 phone lines and 130 nurses to keep up.

“The big thing that we see right now is a very fast acceleration of virtual care,” said Goulet.

He believes Canadians who experience the convenience of such services amid COVID-19 will be more likely to turn to them in the future, when the pandemic is over.

He’s used such services when he had an infection or when caring for his son and chalks them up as “fabulous.”

“It usually takes no more than a few minutes, you’re connected with a health care provider, you’re seeing each other on the screen and if you need a prescription they just email it directly to the pharmacy or they can even deliver it at your home,” he said.

“It’s a game-changer.”

Companies in this story: (TSX:SLF, TSX:MFC, TSX:LFE)

Tara Deschamps, The Canadian Press