Health Care Providers Not Waiting For Telehealth Bill

Apr 11, 2016

Gov. Rick Scott has a few more days left to sign a bill that would create a statewide telehealth advisory council, but health care providers aren't waiting.

Lawmakers have been debating telehealth for several years, but instead of waiting, dozens of health care providers across the state moved ahead with programs that utilize virtual online connections with patients.

For example, Tampa General Hospital next week will launch a mobile app to help patients connect with doctors any time and day of the week.

The hospital’s TGH Virtual Care app will go live for download on April 18 in partnership with the telehealth platform American Well, which also powers Nemours CareConnect at Nemours Children’s Hospital in Orlando.

Patients can also talk to a doctor on a tablet or computer.

Michael Gorsage, senior vice president and chief strategy and business development officer at Tampa General Hospital, said it's a Skype-like program.

"They can see eyeball to eyeball and talk to you and go through a normal health assessment,” Gorsage said.

Gorsage said the app is great for minor illnesses like fever, sore throats and rashes. Each visit costs $49

"What we are trying to do from the urgent care perspective here is to make it accessible, convenient, very high quality and cost effective,” Gorsage said.

Gorsage said in the future, visits will be covered by patients' insurance companies.

Tampa-based WellCare is already allowing Medicaid patients to meet virtually with doctors for mental health care.

Julie Harmon, WellCare of Florida's director of product operations, said their app can also be used on a smartphone, tablet or computer.

"It takes a lot of stigma out of accessing mental health or behavioral services because you can do that in the privacy of your own home and access services that way,” Harmon said.

She said telehealth lends itself well to managing mental health and chronic conditions that may require frequent doctor visits.

Hospitals and clinics are increasingly using new technology to see patients amid doctor shortages and to help lower the number of people using the emergency room for non-emergency care.

But few insurance companies cover the same visits they would cover face to face. State lawmakers have been hesitant to regulate telehealth, but on March 11, the Florida House gave final approval to a bill that calls for research and recommendations about its use.

In part, the HB 7087 calls for creating an advisory council that would make recommendations about increasing the use of telehealth. The council would submit a report to the governor and legislative leaders.

Gov. Rick Scott has until Friday to sign the bill. If not signed by then, it automatically becomes law.

--Daylina Miller is a reporter with WUSF in Tampa. WUSF is a partner with Health News Florida, which receives support from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.