HealthPartners and Medica are waiving certain fees for more than 70,000 people in Medicare health plans to encourage seniors to seek care despite the COVID-19 pandemic.

The moves respond to signs that many people have been putting doctor visits on hold, possibly due to worries about exposure to the novel coronavirus.

"We recognize that for Medicare members ... there is a question of making sure that they are getting the care that they need in the context of any concerns that they might have about COVID," said Dr. Patrick Courneya, the chief health plan medical officer at Bloomington-based HealthPartners. "These last few months have led to delays in them getting in for care for things that they really need to be paying attention to."

HealthPartners is waiving cost-sharing fees for Medicare members when they seek in-network primary care and behavioral health visits between July and December. The change applies to about 45,000 people in the insurer's Medicare Advantage, Medicare Cost and group retiree health plans in Minnesota and neighboring states.

Minnetonka-based Medica is waiving cost-sharing for in-office, in-network appointments from June to September. Savings are available to about 28,000 people in Minnesota enrolled in the insurer's Medicare Advantage health plans.

"Our goal is to ensure members get the care they need by seeing their primary care and specialist providers as the first level of care," Greg Bury, a Medica spokesman, said via e-mail to the Star Tribune. He added that "telehealth at home" will continue "as a secondary option."

COVID-19 has created unexpected costs for health insurers as a significant number of people seek care for the new respiratory illness. But those costs might be more than offset by savings for health insurers due to deferred health care, according to an April report by the actuarial firm Milliman.

Milliman projected a net reduction in medical costs for health care payers of at least $75 billion.

Many delays were driven by government restrictions on elective procedures to conserve hospital resources for pandemic patients. Those restrictions have eased, yet the Commonwealth Fund reported last month that visits to ambulatory practices remained roughly one-third lower than pre-pandemic levels.

"Many patients are ... avoiding visits because they do not want to leave their homes and risk exposure," researchers wrote.

Minnetonka-based UnitedHealthcare, which is the nation's largest health insurer, said in May that it would waive certain fees through September for Medicare Advantage enrollees when they visit doctors.

Eagan-based Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota said it would waive some cost-sharing fees for about 100,000 people in Medicare Advantage plans.

Minneapolis-based UCare waived certain copays, as well, but also discounted premiums for about 100,000 seniors with Medicare Advantage coverage as people use less health care with COVID-19.

At HealthPartners, cost-sharing will be waived for in-person, phone and video primary care and behavioral health visits, including visits for substance abuse when services provided are in-network.

When COVID-19 emerged, many clinics moved to "virtual visits" where doctors and patients communicate through secure digital channels.

The moves reduced exposure risks and also helped conserve scarce supplies of protective equipment. Some clinics have dabbled with drive-through care to reduce exposure risks.

The volume of in-person visits to primary care clinics is starting to recover, said Courneya of HealthPartners.

"By waiving the copays for primary care, we have eliminated that barrier to [patients] coming in," he said. "And by doing the same thing for mental health, we recognize how stressful this has been."

At Medica, telehealth visits will continue to be available under the federal emergency declaration, but they will have copays, said Bury, the company spokesman.

Christopher Snowbeck • 612-673-4744

Twitter: @chrissnowbeck