In November 2014, the federal government’s Distance Learning and Telemedicine (DLT) program awarded over $10 million in grants to support telemedicine and rural health research. The list of 65 DLT grant recipients included universities, hospitals, clinics and schools across the country. But zero dollars were awarded to Florida.
Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, who oversaw the USDA’s grants, stated “[d]elivering these programs to rural communities that often do not have access to quality, affordable medical and educational services has tremendous economic and social benefits.”
It is unclear how many Florida entities applied for a DLT grant, but the result is that Florida’s health care sector continues to miss opportunities for promoting and developing telemedicine programs. Florida efforts are already underway to help gain consensus among policymakers on the issue, and the Telehealth Cornerstone Conference in Tallahassee was a platform to exchange ideas and develop awareness. Participants sought to gather information and identify the essential features of a 2015 Florida telemedicine bill in order to help streamline the issues and gain clarity in the discussion.
In many respects, the concerns expressed in Florida’s 2014 legislative session about telemedicine standards of care have now been addressed by the Board of Medicine regulations governing the Standards for Telemedicine Practice, published March 12, 2014 (64B8-9.0141). What Florida continues to lack is a statute ensuring that commercial health plans will not deny covered medical services provided via telemedicine technology.
Nationwide, state legislatures are enacting laws stating that commercial health insurance companies must cover medical services provided via telemedicine to the same extent they cover medical services provided in-person. Currently, 21 states plus the District of Columbia have enacted these telemedicine commercial insurance laws, with legislation under discussion or development in at least a dozen more states. These laws are intended to promote innovation and care delivery in the private sector by catalyzing health care providers and plans to invest in and use the powerful telemedicine tools and technologies available in the marketplace.
Some Florida hospitals and providers have taken the initiative and successfully embedded telemedicine into their patient care delivery models. Results have shown significant increases in quality of care, patient satisfaction, and institutional cost-savings. But without a deliberate step forward to incentivize the Florida market statewide, these telemedicine benefits will remain isolated to patients of a select few hospitals and providers.