Congressional Members, government decision makers from multiple federal agencies and experts from private industry came together at the end of June for the ATA Federal Telemedicine Policy Summit. This annual event brings together healthcare influencers to discuss the latest development impacting telemedicine.
I was in attendance at this year’s event, just as I have been in previous years. However, unlike some past years, I came away from the event excited and encouraged about telemedicine adoption in the United States.
We’ve discussed the benefits of telemedicine at length on the Public Sector View. Telemedicine is capable of expediting the delivery of care, reducing readmission rates, making care more convenient for patients and increasing access to quality care. Even more important, telemedicine is capable of driving down the overall cost of care, which is essential in today’s difficult economic and budget environment.
But despite these many benefits, the mass adoption of telemedicine in the healthcare industry is still moving at slow pace. The two main reasons for this bottleneck are:
1) Reimbursement – Only 19 state governments have approved reimbursements to doctors for services rendered via video teleconferencing (VTC) solutions and the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) continues at a slow pace to provide more aggressive enhancements to the current polices. With reimbursement not guaranteed, doctors have been hesitant to adopt the technology for the care of patients.
2) State licensing requirements – Doctors are currently licensed by individual states. With no federal licensing, doctors from one state are hesitant to consult with patients in other states due to concerns about liability. State licensing boards also consist of numerous sub specialties further complicating education on the benefits of telehealth.
Although both of these issues remain, the rhetoric at the ATA Summit, and trends in the federal government, are all pointing towards policy changes that can help expedite the adoption of telemedicine.
Overall, there’s a feeling across the government and private sector that telemedicine just makes economic sense. With the budget crisis, sequestration and universal spending cuts across the government, telemedicine’s ability to decrease healthcare costs is becoming increasingly attractive.
Legislation is also being introduced and voted on that may help to spearhead telemedicine adoption efforts. Representative Glenn ‘GT’ Thompson, of Pennsylvania’s 5th District proposed the STEP Act, which enabled Department of Defense (DoD) healthcare workers to work across state borders without having to acquire new state licenses.
The passing of this legislation led to telemedicine supporters asking why similar legislation couldn’t be enacted for consumer healthcare services across the country. Rep. Thompson would later introduce HR 6719 to address that issue. Although this bill didn’t pass, it brought the issues facing telemedicine adoption to the attention of both Congress and the general public.
The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is also putting programs in place to help make telemedicine a reality in rural hospitals. The agency recently published final rules on the rural health program that are designed to streamline the application process. They’re also working to unite rural and more experienced providers to provide a telemedicine mentoring program.
Although policy issues, such as Medicare and State Medicaid reimbursements and state licensing, are continuing to keep telemedicine from wider, universal adoption across the country, change appears to be on the horizon. The federal government is beginning to realize that the cost savings of telemedicine could help save taxpayer dollars and make healthcare in the country better and more accessible for patients.
If this year’s ATA Policy Summit was any indication, the walls separating Americans from quality telemedicine services are eroding, and together with pressure from patient advocacy groups we should be able to expect legislative efforts to push through the final barriers.