Expanding access to telemedicine

Let’s give our family caregivers and their patients the healthcare relief they need and deserve.

Seven days a week, 65.7 million caregivers across the nation care for ill loved ones.  Nearly all provide care as a labor of love and the financial burden and emotional stress of providing care can take a serious toll on these generous caregivers.  The healthcare delivery system is under just as much stress, with physician shortages, geographic limitations, and the rapid growth of chronic health conditions.

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Fortunately, there’s an answer to this dilemma.  Imagine if healthcare could be provided at home.  This technology, “telemedicine”, exists today and uses broadband Internet connections to provide healthcare at a fraction of the financial and human cost of visits to the doctor.

Yet telemedicine is not yet widely available.  The two major barriers to universal telemedicine are the unavailability of insurance reimbursement for remote monitoring and home telehealth, and a modern federal licensure model so that interstate services are not restrained by a patchwork of conflicting state regulations.

Every year, caregivers spend thousands of dollars in transportation costs and if states allow for the reimbursement of telemedicine services, caregivers could save thousands of dollars per year.  Residents of Georgia, a state whose insurers began reimbursing for telehealth services in 2005 for rural residents, reported saving an average of 124 miles of travel per healthcare visit and saved more than $762,000 in fuel costs. Further, telemedicine offers insurance plans a cost-effective solution to reduce costly expenses related to hospital readmissions.  Research has shown that patients who receive telemedicine services are more likely to have better health outcomes and are less likely to be admitted to the hospital, resulting in huge cost savings.

To date, only 18 states reimburse for home telehealth, and 12 reimburse for remote patient monitoring services.   In 30 states, medical insurers fail to reimburse for a variety of telemedicine services with parity to a traditional in-person doctor visit.  Also, medical licensing boards have inconsistent requirements that physicians must meet which makes it difficult for patients visiting or living in states different from where their physician practices to seek medical advice and treatment.

On a positive note, federal and state-level action to ensure that telemedicine licensure and reimbursement reforms occur is underway. On the federal level, Reps. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) and Frank Pallone, Jr. (D-N.J.) proposed the TELE-MED Act of 2013 (HR 3077), which would legalize the treatment of Medicare patients across state lines via telemedicine and allow patients and their caregivers more flexibility when either party wants to visit each other.

On the state level, members of the National Organization of Black Elected Legislative Women (NOBEL Women), in a partnership with the American Telemedicine Association, have taken the lead in securing the enactment of laws requiring medical insurers to reimburse health care providers for telemedicine services.

NOBEL Women leaders plan to shepherd telemedicine reimbursement reform bills in 14 states.  Coincidentally, half of these states ranked highest in hospital care, physician and clinical services expenditures, prescription drugs costs, and obesity rates. These states also collectively spent $94,607 on healthcare per state resident. 

As we applaud these lawmakers for taking steps to usher in these reforms, let us advocate alongside these champions as they strive to secure telemedicine reimbursement reform legislation and institute a much-needed nationwide telemedicine licensure model.  Through these efforts, all Americans could have the ability to choose how our healthcare is delivered, and we can reward caregivers with the relief they wholeheartedly need and deserve.

Johnson is a media and communications regulatory policy expert. She serves as the Chair of the Minority Media and Telecommunications Council (MMTC), which for 28 years has been the leading civil rights organization in the field of media, telecom and broadband policy. Additionally, she is a member of the American Telemedicine Association’s Board of Directors.