December 9, 2020

Telehealth in Kansas During COVID-19

Survey of health providers: August-September 2020

A crisis shows telehealth works; now we need to explore how to sustain services

Earlier this year, in an effort to help providers and patients maintain access to health services during the COVID-19 pandemic, the federal government and the State of Kansas issued emergency telehealth policy changes to improve access to telehealth services and preserve access to care during the pandemic. A summary of telehealth policy changes in Kansas includes:

  • Expanded reimbursement and parity in payment for select services
  • Broadened reimbursement for telephone visits and relaxed requirements for communications platforms
  • Relaxed rules for originating and distance sites
  • Additional provider types and services available for patients
  • Ability to use out-of-state providers, if certain conditions are met, to increase access to services
  • Decreased geographic limitations

To help understand how these changes impacted the utilization of telehealth services by Kansas providers and patients, the United Methodist Health Ministry Fund partnered with provider groups in Kansas to survey their members about their experience with the delivery of telehealth services. The research, conducted by the University of Kansas School of Medicine, sought to understand how providers and consumers characterized their experience in light of policy changes that sought to make telehealth service more broadly available.

The research shows providers and patients benefited from expanded use of telehealth services during COVID-19, especially during the early months of the virus outbreak as in-person visits declined. The use of telehealth by providers such as primary care physicians, nurse practitioners, and psychiatrists increased from 2019 to 2020, according to survey respondents.

The Health Fund is presenting this new research to the KanCare Oversight Committee on Dec. 9. The testimony, a policy brief on the report, and the slides that Dorothy Hughes, University of Kansas Medical Center, will present on findings of the research she conducted are linked here. Feb. 9, 2021 testimony to the House Health and Human Services Committee is available here.

Providers say telehealth will remain an important part of ensuring patients can access care. In fact, many outpatient providers are planning to expand telehealth services. Respondents reported that policy changes negatively impacting telehealth reimbursement would be a barrier to greater use of telehealth and thus access to needed services and specialists. The following illustrative quotations demonstrate providers’ sentiments overall about the use of telehealth:

“I was totally against telehealth before COVID. I did not see a use for it in my practice. Now that I have tried it…my patients and I love it. I’m very afraid that reimbursement will be taken away and I will have to give it up.”

“We need to continue to be able to provide telehealth and phone services for our patients to keep them safe and be reimbursed like in person visits so that keeping our patients safe does not negatively impact our ability to keep our clinic doors open. The overhead cost of providing telehealth services makes this difficult otherwise.”

85 percent of providers responding to the survey said expanded reimbursement was the #1 priority for making sure telehealth continues to have a positive impact in Kansas.

Previous research and this survey highlight that telehealth offers many benefits to Kansans, such as:

  • Improving access to care for patients in both urban and rural settings
  • Increasing continuity of care
  • Decreasing time away from work or families to see medical providers
  • Allowing providers to better contain and manage health care costs

Telehealth is not intended to replace in-person care, but provides both patients and health care providers with options that can contribute to positive patient outcomes, including, for example, chronic disease management and monitoring in elderly or vulnerable patients who are at risk for falls and where in-home monitoring presents a safer option.

This initial survey is strong evidence that telehealth can play a significant role in improving health care access for Kansans. More information can be found in the full report here:

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