McMaster telehealth

Gov. Henry McMaster and MUSC emergency medicine Dr. Edward O'Bryan demonstrate how to use the health system's virtual care technology, which is now available for free for enrollees in the State Health Plan. Provided/S.C Governor's Office

The 507,000 beneficiaries of the State Health Plan are now able to access free virtual urgent care, so they can have their ailments treated from the comfort of their homes.

Gov. Henry McMaster announced the new benefit Thursday in Columbia. The Medical University of South Carolina, which is home to the South Carolina Telehealth Alliance, offers the virtual visits. 

The program began Jan. 1. 

The benefit is being offered as a convenience for public employees who don't have time to see a doctor or get to an urgent care clinic, McMaster said Thursday. 

"This is taking health care, taking the doctor to the people," he said. "It's as close as your telephone."

Users can pull up the MUSC application — available at www.musc.care — on a desktop computer, smartphone or tablet to set up a video conference with a health care provider. The urgent care appointments have no co-pay, making them free for beneficiaries. The online service is geared for common ailments such as allergies, rashes, colds and influenza.

People covered by the State Health Plan, administered by the S.C. Public Employee Benefit Authority, make up about 10 percent of the South Carolina population. They include employees of the state and local government and school districts, along with spouses and children. 

The new program will not cost the State Health Plan anything, according to the authority. Instead, it will be funded through money from the Legislature and MUSC. 

Dr. Pat Cawley, CEO of MUSC Health, said public employees can cut their health care costs, save time and money and stay healthier using the virtual option.

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"It removes barriers to earlier and better care," Cawley said. "Patients can access care in the way they like best." 

Wait times average about four minutes on the system, and the visits take about 15 minutes.

Members do not have to be South Carolina residents, but, in order for the service to work, users must be within the state when they connect. The service is also available to people enrolled in Medicare who have a supplemental plan through the Public Employee Benefit Authority.

Reach Mary Katherine Wildeman at 843-937-5594. Follow her on Twitter @mkwildeman.