By Stephanie Stumbo
The past three months have proven to be a formidable time for health care delivery. The environment created by the COVID-19 pandemic has shined a brighter light on telemedicine technology services. Telemedicine – also known as telehealth – is a means of providing patient care delivery through technologies such as at-home video that, in some cases, may replace an in-person visit by a patient.
While telemedicine has slowly increased in popularity, the COVID-19 pandemic is proving to be a watershed event, accelerating the integration and participation in telemedicine years into the future. Kentucky Association of Health Plans, the trade organization representing the commercial and Medicaid managed care health insurance community, saw usage significantly increase during this time. Plans are experiencing increases up to 3,100 percent in utilization, and many of the plans operating in multiple states witnessed their Kentucky telehealth numbers surge higher than in other places across the country.
Kentucky was particularly well prepared to accommodate the surge because the General Assembly passed SB 112 in 2018, which encouraged greater utilization of telehealth services. The result of that legislation was to encourage more providers to offer telehealth services.
The state took extra measures on March 25 of this year, waiving some telehealth regulations to enable more Kentuckians to seek much-needed remote care amidst the pandemic.
Providers and patients quickly shifted many appointments to telehealth, which helped keep people out of the hospitals, freeing up beds for critical cases. Additionally, the move limited the spread of the virus by people who otherwise would have traveled to and from doctors’ offices for non-life threatening COVID-19 cases or other viral cases.
Meanwhile, Medicaid health plans began carefully examining enrollee health data to set rapid response priorities. The plans worked to create their own risk tiers by analyzing health records and demographic data, noting for instance, that African Americans were suffering higher rates of infection and death. Plans committed maximum employee resources to expedite outreach to medically fragile individuals with preexisting conditions, eventually working down to younger, healthier enrollees. Enrollees are advised of COVID-19 symptoms and testing locations in their area. To help them stay on track, the plans helped to arrange telehealth visits with providers to keep the most-vulnerable patients at home and away from risk of exposure, while also ensuring adherence to medications through early refills.
Telehealth is also enabling psychiatrists and therapists to connect with those struggling with clinical anxiety, depression, and addiction at a critical time when access to in-person care is limited. In a recent Census Bureau survey a third of Americans and nearly 38 percent of Kentuckians experienced symptoms of anxiety disorder or depressive disorder. While it may be too early to say definitively, there are also early indications that after much progress in recent years in the fight against fatal drug overdoses, Kentucky and the nation may be facing a new onslaught due to contributing factors of the pandemic.
To address these troubling statistics, health insurers in the Commonwealth are expanding and investing new resources in telehealth technology. Insurers are also making recovery services more accessible via partnerships with new online virtual support services and facilitating connections to 12-step groups.
On April 27, health care practitioners were able to begin resuming non-urgent/emergent health care services, diagnostic radiology, and lab service. Even as providers ease into in-person visits, telehealth technology services will continue to demonstrate need beyond the current health crisis. Figures from health insurers depict telehealth slowing from its exponential growth in March and April, but still maintaining a higher utilization than before the COVID-19 pandemic despite medical office reopenings in May.
Even in normal circumstances, telehealth is a useful tool for many Kentuckians, especially those who do not live close to specialists or who have transportation obstacles. But in times like these, the benefits are even more significant. They have reduced the number of people in waiting rooms and the risk of exposure for health care professionals.
The pandemic has catapulted the healthcare sector into future—and now more Kentuckians have access to care as a result.
Stephanie Stumbo is executive director of Kentucky Association of Health Plans, the trade organization representing the Kentucky health insurance community.