UnitedHealthcare has launched what it calls a "virtual-first" health plan where patients start with online health care providers before moving to in-person visits as needed.

The Minnetonka-based carrier, which is the nation's largest health insurer, announced the health plan this week as a way to reduce costs at a time when the pandemic has prompted many to try web-based care.

Under the plan enrollees pay a $0 copay when going online to access primary care providers as well as virtual urgent care. Premiums will be about 15% lower than traditional benefit plans, John Rex, the chief financial officer at parent company UnitedHealth Group, said during the company's third quarter earnings call this month.

UnitedHealthcare expects savings will come in part through better integration of virtual and clinic-based care. Patients are matched with an online primary care provider (PCP) who connects patients with in-person health care providers as needed. The virtual PCPs are employed by Optum, which is UnitedHealth Group's division for health care services.

"UnitedHealthcare is using Optum's virtual capabilities to introduce a new suite of digital-first products offering a near seamless experience between virtual and traditional primary, specialty and urgent care," Dirk McMahon, the chief operating officer at UnitedHealth Group, said during last week's earnings call.

A July report from McKinsey & Company found that use of telehealth was 78 times higher in April 2020, right after the pandemic hit, than it was in February of that year. Utilization has since stabilized at a lower level, but remains 38 times the pre-pandemic rate, the consulting firm says.

Up until now, virtual care largely has been focused on acute care needs and specific diseases such as diabetes, said Brooks Deibele, market leader in Minneapolis for Holmes & Murphy, a benefits consultancy. Deibele said he was "encouraged" by the UnitedHealthcare product because it could address long-standing problems in health care such as unnecessary visits, inappropriate use of services and disjointed patient experiences.

"I believe we're just scratching the surface on the impact integrated virtual care models can have," Deibele said via e-mail. "The door is open for innovators to create a comprehensive integrated model that combines personalized support, technology and coordination with brick-and-mortar facilities."

The new health plan, called NavigateNOW, will be available to employers in nine markets across the U.S. including the Twin Cities. Copays won't be charged for primary care provided in brick-and-mortar clinics, either, or for generic medications as well as behavioral health visits in both in-person and online settings.

Savings should come from multiple factors, the company says, including patients opting for telehealth visits rather than costlier visits to emergency rooms. Expenses also should be better managed, the insurer says, with wider adoption of primary care by enrollees because of low copays as well as "unlimited chat, online scheduling and on-demand, same-day appointments," UnitedHealthcare said in a statement.