Senate bill would pay doctors to use Facetime with patients

While individual telehealth visits may be cheaper, they could drive up overall costs


A new bipartisan Senate bill would let Medicare experiment with paying for more telehealth services, enabling physicians and other healthcare providers to evaluate patients via video chats such as Facetime.

Sponsored by Sen. Cory Gardner (R-Col.) and Sen. Gary Peters (D-Mich.), the Telehealth Innovation and Improvement Act would allow selected hospitals to test  telehealth services for Medicare beneficiaries, particularly those who live in hard-to-reach rural areas.

"It would also incentivize the healthcare industry to develop new technologies that could potentially reduce costs and improve patient health," Gardner said in a statement.

This isn't the first time a bill has been introduced that aims to expand the use of physician services via technology; similar bills were introduced in the House in 2015  and in the Senate in 2016. Both died.

The 2015 bill, "Creating Opportunities Now for Necessary and Effective Care Technologies (CONNECT) for Health Act" won statements of support from over 50 organizations, including the American Medical Association, the American Heart Association, the American Telemedicine Association, the American Association of Retired Persons, Anthem, Intel and Kaiser Permanente.

A study by Washington-based consultancy Avalere Health found telehealth had the potential to reduce federal Medicare spending by $1.8 billion through efficiencies over a decade.

The use of electronic communications or so called telemedicine is nothing new and includes video conferencing such as Facetime, as well as electronic messaging through emails, instant messages and even Facebook and Twitter.

Last month, the RAND Corp. published a study in the journal Health Affairs that found even though individual telehealth visits are less expensive than in-person appointments, using remote telehealth services could boost the use of healthcare services, which would lead to greater costs.

"We estimated that 12% of direct-to-consumer telehealth visits replaced visits to other providers, and 88% represented new utilization," the study stated. "Net annual spending on acute respiratory illness increased $45 per telehealth user. Direct-to-consumer telehealth may increase access by making care more convenient for certain patients, but it may also increase utilization and health care spending."

Copyright © 2017 IDG Communications, Inc.

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