The wind may be even stronger at the back of telehealth this year–but not without a bit of chill

Late last year, this Editor noted that ‘the wind may finally be at the back of telehealth distribution and payment’. The expansion of telehealth access for privately issued Medicare Advantage (MA) plans, state-run Medicaid and CHIP (Children’s Health Insurance Plan) plan members, and this year’s Medicare Physician Fee Schedule, along with a limited expansion of telemedicine in the Value-Based Insurance Design (VBID) model for MA announced earlier this year by CMS, is a leading indicator that government is encouraging private insurers to pay doctors for these services, who in term will pay vendors for providing them.

The Veterans Health Administration (VA) has historically been the largest user in the US of telehealth services (home telehealth, clinical video telehealth, store-and-forward). They are also a closed and relatively inflexible system (disclosure–this Editor worked for Viterion, a former RPM supplier to the VA). In 2017, under then Secretary David Shulkin (who left under a cloud, and not an IT one), there were hopes raised through the Anywhere to Anywhere VA Health Care Initiative. So the news released at the start of HIMSS’ annual meeting that veterans will be able to access their health data through Apple’s Health Records app on the iPhone, perhaps as early as this summer, was certainly an encouraging development. According to mHealth Intelligence, the key in enabling this integration and with other apps in the future is the Veterans Health Application Programming Interface (API), unveiled last year.

Anywhere to Anywhere is also making headway in veteran telemedicine usage. Of their 2.3 million telehealth episodes in their FY 2018, over 1 million were video telehealth visits with veterans, up 19 percent from 2017. 105,000 of those video visits were through VA Video Connect to veterans’ personal devices. The remainder were real-time interactive video conferences at a VA clinic. The other half were assessment of data between VA facilities or data sent from home (the underused Home Telehealth).  Health Data Management

Virginia also moved to make remote patient monitoring part of covered telehealth services for commercial health plans and the state Medicaid program. The combined bills HB 1970 and SB 1221 will be sent for signature to Governor Ralph Northam, to whom the adjective ‘beleaguered’ certainly applies. National Law Review

But service providers face compliance hurdles when dealing with governmental entities, and they’re complex. There are Federal fraud, waste, and abuse statutes such as on referrals (Anti-Kickback, Stark Law on self-referral), state Corporate Practice of Medicine Doctrine statutes, and medical licensure requirements for telehealth practices. Telehealth: The Beginner’s Guide to Legal Pitfalls is a short essay on what can face a medical practice in telehealth.

VA’s Secretary Shulkin wants more private care options for veterans as part of reforms

Released days before our Thanksgiving turkey (or steak, or lasagne), the Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin, in an interview with The Wall Street Journal (paywalled), stated his aims to increase veteran access to private care without having to rely on the VA to approve or coordinate it. This is in the direction of the recently signed bill with $2.1 bn in funding for the Veterans Choice program that targets veterans living in areas without ready access to VA facilities, or who are told they cannot get an appointment within VA within 30 days.

“The direction I’m taking this is to give veterans more choice in their care and be the decision maker for their care, which I fundamentally believe is a concept that has to be implemented,” Shulkin said. He admitted that opening the VA to private care programs will be gradual. Mentioned in the article were commodity, non-urgent services like podiatry and audiology.

For instance, the Veterans Choice program started in 2014 after wait times exploded in multiple regions, delaying care past 30 days for over half a million veterans for years well into 2015. Veterans died after waiting for care or follow up for months, notably at the Phoenix VA, creating a massive and rightfully political problem. 

Dr. Shulkin’s drive for reform and speed of care is also increasing the pace telehealth expansion with programs such as Anywhere to Anywhere which would allow cross-state consults and care that published their Federal proposed rule last month, and the rollout of VA Video Connect [TTA 9 Aug]. Earlier this year, four companies were awarded a total of over $1 bn to provide Home Telehealth over five years, reviving a fading program and updating it to not only smaller in-home tablets, but also to mobile and laptop devices. As noted in our OnePerspective article on telemental health deployment, the VA has the largest program in the US, dating back to the early 2000s.

While some veterans organizations, such as the Veterans of Foreign Wars, have been critical of moves towards integrating private care, this Editor cannot see where the problem truly is. Healthcare Dive, The Hill 

Proposed rule issued for ‘VA Anywhere to Anywhere’ telehealth cross-state care

The Department of Veterans Affairs ‘Anywhere to Anywhere’ program, which would enable VA doctors to treat VA patients across state lines via telehealth and telemedicine, yesterday (2 October) published in the Federal Register the required Federal proposed rule. There is a mandated 30-day comment period (to 1 Nov). In the Federal government, these rules move faster than any legislation. From the rule: “VA has developed a telehealth program as a modern, beneficiary- and family-centered health care delivery model that leverages information and telecommunication technologies to connect beneficiaries with health care providers, irrespective of the State or location within a State where the health care provider or the beneficiary is physically located at the time the health care is provided.” PDF of rule.

VA Home Telehealth has both doctor-to-patient telemedicine and vital signs remote monitoring components. While VA is fully able to waive state licensing requirements if both the physician and the patient are in a VA clinic, because of state telemedicine laws they have not been able to provide the same care for veterans at home. VA also has a care distribution problem, with many veterans living in rural areas, at great distances from VA facilities, or with limited mobility. What this will enable is VA hiring in metro areas primary care and specialist doctors to cover veterans in rural or underserved areas and the expansion of mental health care. It also will facilitate the rollout of the VA Video Connect app for smartphones and video-equipped computers now in use by over 300 VA providers [TTA 9 Aug].

The VETS Act (Veterans E-Health and Telemedicine Support Act of 2017, S. 925) would permanently legislate this, but in the US system this type of Federal rule, in this circumstance, moves faster.  Fierce Healthcare, Healthcare Finance, mHealth Intelligence