AUSTIN (KXAN) — Telemedicine usage has surged during the COVID-19 pandemic, providing convenience and access to thousands of patients in Texas. But future growth of the service hinges on how much private insurance companies are willing to pay.

Among Texas’ largest private insurance providers, only Aetna has committed to permanently reimburse health care providers for telemedicine visits at the same rate at an in-person visit. Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Texas, Cigna, and Humana will each fully reimburse for telemedicine visits through 2020, with plans to reassess coverage in 2021.

“I think you take a step backward if you lose that level of access when the pandemic ends,” said Lisa Kirsch, senior policy director for the Dell Medical School at the University of Texas.

UnitedHealthcare Insurance Company — the second-largest private health insurance provider in Texas as of 2018 — will fully reimburse health care providers for telemedicine visits through Oct. 22.

Scott Flannery, chief executive officer of the company’s North Texas and Oklahoma operations, said future reimbursement plans for telemedicine services will be announced soon.

“I’m not going to predict it but everything that we’ve done to this point around the pandemic has really favored our constituents, the people we serve, so I wouldn’t expect our policy to be a whole lot different,” Flannery said in an interview with KXAN.

Aetna, Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Texas, Cigna, and Humana declined invitations to be interviewed for this story, instead providing statements with their respective coverage plans.

Telemedicine technology isn’t new but, before the pandemic, it wasn’t financially worthwhile for many health care providers to supply the service to patients, according to Dr. Ogechika Alozie, a physician in El Paso.

“I think it’s totally hinged upon what the insurance companies do,” said Alozie, who is also a member of the Texas Medical Association Committee on Health Information Technology.

Despite the future of telemedicine access largely being left up to private, for-profit companies, Alozie is confident telemedicine usage will continue to grow.

The Trump administration has already signaled a desire to extend loosened telemedicine restrictions for Medicare and Medicaid patients beyond the pandemic. Telemedicine advocates are hopeful that insurance providers will follow the federal government’s lead.

“I really believe that as we say ‘telemedicine’ we’ll remove the ‘tele.’ It’ll just be medicine. It’ll be health care,” he said.