The US Department of Agriculture announced it will add $23.4 million in funding for telehealth through its Rural Development Distance Learning and Telemedicine Program. The additional money will go towards assisting 75 projects in 31 states.
“Rural communities often lack access to specialized medical care or advanced educational opportunities,” said Tom Vilsack, secretary of agriculture.
Some examples of projects include Baptist Health System in Kentucky using $180,000 to purchase and set up videoconferencing equipment for patients in Kentucky and Tennessee; Alaska using $420,000 to buy equipment and use it to link clinics and a hospital; and Baptist Health in Arkansas will set up a critical care network for 6 medical centers.
The USDA has provided more than $213 million in grants and loans for learning and telemedicine projects in rural areas since 2009.
A new bill is being considered by the Senate which would ease licensure requirements in order to facilitate mental health visits using telemedicine for Veterans’ Affairs patients. The bill would waive state licensure requirements if both the patient and physician are located in a federal facility during the telemedicine visit. Additionally, home mental health telemedicine visits would also be allowed regardless of the state where the VA physician is located or licensed.
Approximately 677,000 veterans received telemedicine visits last year including 122,000 who received home mental health visits. “Telehealth care is an innovative and important means to meet the wide-ranging needs of veterans in Iowa and nationwide, including the invisible struggles of mental healthcare,” said Senator Joni Ernst (R-Iowa), the bill’s sponsor.
The bill also calls for reporting of quality metrics such as patient and provider satisfaction, frequency of use, wait times, and effect on access to care. The bill has been endorsed by the Veterans of Foreign Wars, Paralyzed Veterans of America, the American Legion, Concerned Veterans for America and the American Telemedicine Association
A survey recently released by American Academy of Family Physicians provides insight into the thoughts of family physicians towards telemedicine and telehealth. According to the survey 87% of uses and 64% of non-users of telehealth services would use telehealth to connect patients to specialists if telehealth were available. 1557 family physicians responded to the survey.
Compared with non-users, users of telehealth were more likely to practice in rural areas, be younger, have practiced less than 10 years, and use and EHR. The physicians who incorporated telemedicine reported using it for diagnosis or treatment (55%), chronic disease management (26%), follow ups (21%), and second opinions (20%).
“The findings also suggest that telehealth is on the cusp of advancing from a tool used occasionally to a tool implemented on a routine basis. However, use of telehealth services will not become widely adopted until health systems are reformed to address barriers. Specifically, practice training and support need to be reformed to include telehealth education; technological platforms need to be updated with tools to support telehealth; reimbursement for telehealth services needs to be expanded; and licensing and credentialing need to be clarified to allow for interstate provision of telehealth services,” the survey report authors wrote.
The American Medical Association has recently created a working group tasked with creating CPT codes for telemedicine to support reimbursement. Currently there are multiple CPT codes originally used for face to face encounters that can be used for various telemedicine visits. However, specific telemedicine codes may improve physician comfort in seeking reimbursement for the encounters. The working group is composed of physicians, health professionals, telemedicine innovators, and insurers.
“The CPT code set is the foundation upon which every participant in the medical community — physicians, hospitals, allied health professionals, payers and others — can efficiently share accurate information about medical services,” AMA President Dr. Steven J. Stack said in a statement. “Input from the Telehealth Services Workgroup will help the CPT code set reflect new technological and telehealth advancements available to mainstream clinical practice, and ensures the code set can fulfill its role as the health system’s common language for reporting contemporary medical procedures.”
The working group met for the first time in Philadelphia this month. The workgroup now intends to subdivide and determine those areas most in need of codes.