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Telemedicine Act Considered by Florida Senate Today

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Telemedicine is a smart move in medical technology, both for cost-effectiveness and ease of use. The use of “teledocs” at hospitals is a perfect answer for overpopulated, understaffed regions, and it’s exponentially more convenient than leaving the house to manage a condition or go in for a consultation.

Growing in popularity with insured consumers in other states, Floridians are ready to join the telehealth movement. Insurers and the state haven’t finalized their stance on the coverage of services received via online video chats with providers, however.

The Florida Senate Health Policy Committee will review the Florida Telemedicine Act on Tuesday. The act would establish a method for regulating medical providers who use telemedicine to treat patients in Florida and outside of the state.

The most significant factor, how much is actually covered, will be up to the insurer. The bill doesn’t require private health plans to cover telemedicine, though it says if they do they must cover the same amounts as in-person office visits.

This may not go over so well. Last week, House leaders suggested they want to permit telemedicine but prefer insurers and providers negotiate pricing without Legislature requiring parity.

Under the Senate bill, Florida’s Medicaid program for the poor would cover telehealth services. While the private market is difficult for the state to govern, it can more easily adjust the state-run health insurance program for needy Floridians.

Medicaid members can benefit greatly from the use of telemedicine, as it increases the dwindling number of physicians available to low-income patients. Even for higher-income Floridians, physicians are increasingly more difficult to come by.

The Florida Medical Association and others involved in the state’s healthcare industry support telemedicine for this taxing reason. Ideally, FMA wanted a law that required insurers to cover telemedicine, but comments from state lawmakers indicate they aren’t open to such mandates.

If the Florida Telemedicine Act is passed, the standard of care must be the same for virtual care as it is for a face-to-face appointment. The law also blocks a potential loophole from opening, preventing doctors from prescribing controlled substances for chronic non-malignant pain during an online visit.

In Minnesota, telemedicine has been included by private health insurance companies like Health Partners and Medica for several years. Certain plans sold prior to the health law’s passage covered virtual visits in full, and others offered them at a smaller copay than in-person office visits.

Currently, Minnesota’s individual market is the most cost-effective in the nation, with rates decreasing even in the face of guaranteed issue. If Florida took a few pointers from this state, its healthcare costs could change dramatically.

Patients and providers alike are ready for telemedicine to be covered, they’re just waiting on insurers. “Telemedicine is very cost-effective,” said John Santangelo, IT director at Cleveland Clinic Florida in Weston. “If insurance companies start to recognize that [and include telemedicine in their plans], it fuels innovation and helps it to greatly expand.”

That goal of keeping people out of the emergency room is better achieved by connecting with patients virtually, as Sheila Schubert, administrator for Memorial Regional Hospital’s Home Health Services in the Hollywood area has discovered.

Memorial has been offering a telehealth program since last year to heart failure patients recovering at home, and its 30-day readmission rate among that group has dropped to less than 2 percent — compared to the 22.8 percent national average and the hospital’s 19.9 percent overall readmission rate.

“It will never take the place of nurses,” Schubert said. “But we will be able to have more interaction with patients in between nurse visits.”

B. Somers

B. Somers is a contributor to Health Insurance News, focusing on medical coverage, carriers, public programs and Obamacare. Writing for East Coast Health Insurance since 2012, she got started with healthcare and insurance news at its most exciting time in U.S. history.
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