ONLY A FEW short months ago, Gov. Charlie Baker appeared before a legislative committee on Beacon Hill to plug legislation containing a provision that would require insurers to cover telehealth visits.
“The fact that we’re not particularly aggressive about incorporating it or progressing it is bizarre,” said Baker. “This is a really significant opportunity to do something that would increase access and probably reduce cost, too, for a lot of services.”
Only three months and one pandemic later, the Baker administration is touting the tremendous impact an emergency order on telehealth is having in keeping patients with behavioral health issues and ongoing medical problems home and attended to via phone or video.
“The combination of the arrival of coronavirus and the executive emergency order we announced on telehealth has brought this into the mainstream in Massachusetts as a legitimate way for clinicians to support and provide services to their patients that simply didn’t exist before,” said Baker at a Friday press conference.
The executive order, which requires that health insurance plans reimburse medical providers for telehealth at the same rate as in-person visits, has helped the practice take off.
“Telehealth was invented in Massachusetts almost 20 years go and it’s never been legal here – legal in the sense that it’s a covered benefit as it is in so many other places,” Baker said.
Marylou Sudders, the secretary of health and human services, said a survey conducted by the Massachusetts League of Community Health Centers indicated general telehealth visits jumped from 506 to 83,000 between January and April, while behavioral telehealth visits rose from 517 to 22,000. At MassHealth, the state’s Medicaid health insurance program, she said telehealth visits have increased by 600,000 since March.
Eliza Lake, the CEO of Hilltown Community Health Center in the tiny town of Worthington in western Massachusetts, joined Baker to trumpet the benefits of telehealth.
“Telehealth has been a critical piece of our overall response. It has been a vital strategy, both in caring for our patients and helping to address some of the health centers’ financial distress,” she said.
Unlike other medical services, like optometry appointments, behavioral health appointments at most community health centers have not been affected by the coronavirus because of the telehealth option, Lake said.
Lake said treatments by phone make a lot of sense in a rural region where public transit is nonexistent and high-speed internet access is limited. “It certainly isn’t always ideal,” said Lake, describing how her therapists told her about a man parked in a car at a public hotspot for his video visit and a teenager who drove to the top of a hill to get better cell coverage in order to see her therapist remotely.
But she said the benefits outweigh the tech issues. “Telehealth is helping us meet their needs flexibly,” she said.