Telemedicine is a Godsend

By: Patricia Chadwick

As the pro bono Chief Administrative Officer of Anchor Health Initiative (AHI), the largest Connecticut health care company serving the primary and specialty needs of the LGBTQ community, I have witnessed firsthand the beneficial impact of telemedicine (also referred to as telehealth) on the lives of our more than 1500 patients.

In March of this year, when COVID-19 led to mandatory stay-at-home orders in the State of Connecticut, we were able to implement, within a week, a telehealth protocol for all our patients.

Ours was not a unique experience. From giant multinational enterprises to small entrepreneurial companies covering a vast array of industries across this country and around the world, the benefits of technology came to the fore, allowing hundreds of millions of employees to work remotely, thus averting what surely could have been a massive global economic depression.

As one of those small (and not-for-profit) companies, it was all hands on deck, as we taught our patients to engage electronically, making it possible for them to “visit” their providers on a regular and timely basis. One major benefit for our patients over these past five months has been that they seldom have needed to cancel their appointments. Such last minute issues as a sick child at home, or inclement weather or even just the effort to make a long trip for someone who is elderly, frail or not feeling well, have been all but eliminated by the miracle of technology, as patients can now receive the medical care they need with reduced stress and without risking their own health or the health of others.

I’m sure that most of you have had someone in your family who has availed him/herself of telemedicine in the recent past, and that you’ve been grateful for the saving of time, travel and hassle. My husband and I have also experienced firsthand the benefits of “visiting” the doctor via Zoom (or its equivalent) over these last few months. The scheduled appointments were always on time – no long waits in a waiting room – and once engaged with the doctor, it felt as though we were in the same room, without ever the sense of being rushed. Whatever prescription orders were needed were sent directly to our pharmacy.

Of course, telemedicine cannot take the place of all health care visits – numerous procedures, annual physicals, an array of emergencies, and injections are primary examples of the need for patients to make in-person visits to their providers. But follow-ups for those kinds of visits can easily and proficiently be handled by a tele- visit.
So, it’s disconcerting to discover that, during a special session of the Connecticut legislature three weeks ago, in codifying Governor Lamont’s executive order to allow telehealth visits for the State’s Medicaid patients, the State House of Representatives inserted an end date of March 15, 2021 for reimbursement for such visits. What could possibly have been their reasoning? When I investigated, it was explained to me that the costs were running way above a budget that had been approved before anyone knew there was a COVID-19.

There are two primary reasons why telemedicine might be more costly than what the State had budgeted. First, because a tele-visit has the benefit of reducing cancellations and no-shows, which means that more patients are being cared for than anticipated. That should be cause for celebration – not dismay. Right? It’s a clear example of how technology is improving the healthcare and wellbeing of poor people (who are the sole patients of the State’s health insurance plan). And secondly, the very fact that we are living amid a deadly pandemic guarantees that more people need medical attention.

Telemedicine epitomizes the axiom – “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”
It is probably safe to say that come March 15 of next year, this country will still be battling COVID-19. Even if a vaccine is available, it will not be universally used. Will the State of Connecticut – and for that matter, will private health insurance companies – really put an end to utilizing the technology that can be of major benefit in preventing the spread of the disease?

If the motivation on the part of the State is really to reduce costs, that can be done by negotiating a lower reimbursement rate to the providers. At least in that way, it’s the health care companies, like ours, that foots the bill, not the patients.

Admittedly, it is impossible for any private health care facility in the State to survive solely on the income it receives for seeing its Medicaid patients, so such facilities need to balance the ratio of private and public pay patients.

As numerous industries embrace the technology that allows employees to improve time-management, productivity, and even the environment by working remotely, it would unconscionable if the health insurance industry – public and private – turned its back on its constituents, whose health and well-being they hold in their hands, all for the sake of money.