Hurricanes Harvey and Irma spotlight value of telehealth as new House bill gains ground

Thousands of people in Florida and Texas have made use of remote consults offered by Nemours and others.
By Mike Miliard
02:19 PM
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The Texas Army National Guard moves through flooded Houston streets from Hurricane Harvey. U.S. Army photo

As Houston was inundated and Key West was thrashed with 130-mph winds, several vendors and providers offered free telehealth services to residents displaced by hurricanes Harvey and Irma.

Doctor On Demand and EpicMD both made their services available to regions of Texas and Florida for a limited time, as did LiveHealth Online, which offers video-based consultations physicians and psychologists. Delaware-based Nemours, which operates pediatric specialty clinics in Florida, offered free remote consults to children affected by Irma.

[Also: Nemours latest to offer Irma victims free telehealth visits]

A lot of people took advantage of those opportunities. For instance, nearly 3,000 people over three days availed themselves of a telehealth program offered for free by another area provider, Florida Hospital, according to the Orlando Sentinel. And at Nemours, downloads of its CareConnect telemed app increased by more than 550 percent.

"The big lesson for us was how valuable (telemedicine) can be during disasters," Scott Brady, MD, president of Centra Care, Florida Hospital's urgent care unit, told the Sentinel.

It's long been a frustration that telemedicine has not gained more ground in healthcare. The technology is there – and, as shown in the wake of the recent hurricanes, so is the public's willingness to use it – but reimbursement and regulatory hurdles have prevented it from attaining the ubiquity many think it deserves.

With respect to the reimbursement question, the U.S. may be getting closer to more widespread uptake of telehealth services. The past week, the House Ways and Means Committee passed a bill – by unanimous vote – that would make remote care a central part of Medicare Advantage plans.

The bipartisan Increasing Telehealth Access in Medicare bill, introduced by Reps. Diane Black, R-Tennessee, and Mike Thompson, D-California, would allow telehealth consultations to be a basic benefit – instead of a supplemental service – for people covered by Medicare Advantage.

[UPDATE: MACRA final rule maintains EHR flexibility for 2015 editions, boosts telemedicine]

“This bill is about updating current law to not just allow, but actually encourage the use of telehealth technology to bring the best healthcare possible to our seniors, while also working to address skyrocketing healthcare costs," said Black, in a statement.

"This is a step in the right direction, and we’re not finished yet," added Thompson. "We have a ways to go before we can say we’ve fully empowered providers to use telehealth to deliver timely, appropriate, quality care to their patients."

"This is a bipartisan bill, it’s a common-sense bill," said Black of ITAM. And indeed, telemedicine has long been one of the few areas of healthcare policy that tends to draw support from both sides of the aisle.

Clearly, there's an appetite for telehealth services from the public too. The key now is to build momentum toward more policies supporting easier reimbursement and more widespread deployment.

Twitter: @MikeMiliardHITN
Email the writer: mike.miliard@himssmedia.com