CareFirst Telehealth Grants Boost Usage in Mid-Atlantic

| URAC Staff
Doctor holding tablet and stethoscope overlaid with medical icons

A series of grants from healthcare giant CareFirst BlueCross BlueShield is advancing usage of telehealth in and around the nation’s capital.

CareFirst announced in 2013 it planned to invest up to $1.5 million over the next three years to assist health care providers in “expanding the use of telemedicine in an effort to increase access to quality behavioral health care including substance use disorders.” CareFirst is committed to its partnerships with hospitals and free clinics, Hosanna Asfaw-Means, grants program manager, community affairs, CareFirst Blue Cross Blue Shield, told attendees of the Telemed Leadership Forum 2018 in Washington, D.C., March 28. 

The subsequent grants have had a significant and positive impact on leveraging telehealth to provide better access to care, three grant winners told attendees.

Focusing on providing healthcare care to ships at sea since 1989, “it doesn’t get much more remote than the middle of the ocean,” said Guenevere Burke, MD, MBS, Assistant Professor of Emergency Medicine, GWU. Even on dry land, though, it can be difficult to deliver medical service in an urban area, she said. Telemedicine “represents a new opportunity to do urban telemedicine service.”

They’ve used the grant to treat several conditions, including diabetes, hypertension and chronic kidney disease. While “no-show” appointment rates haven’t changed yet when compared to traditional in-person visits, she said it’s too soon to tell if telehealth will ultimately help lower that rate by removing obstacles such as traffic and long times in waiting rooms. One thing is already clear, however: Patient and provider satisfaction levels are high.

She’s also seen improvement in patient and provider recruitment – and expects that to increase as providers grow more comfortable with telehealth care delivery. “It took time to convince a cardiologist he could do quality care during a telemedicine visit,” she said, citing one example. “But now he’s completely bought in.”

A few dozen miles north of Washington, D.C., telehealth is also thriving, thanks in part to CareFirst.

“Anytime I’m at a conference people say we need to do more behavioral health using telehealth,” said Jeff Richardson, executive director, Mosaic Community Services, a Baltimore-based provider of mental health services in mostly poor, underserved areas. He noted that the psychiatric workforce is shrinking even as demand is increasing. “We need to build a network to widen access,” Richardson stressed. Telehealth can be a big part of the solution, he added.

Like Burke at sea, Richardson also had to contend with some skeptical practitioners. A few psychiatrists in his network questioned the efficacy of telehealth compared to in-person visits. Their ultimate verdict? “They were surprised how great it worked.”

Leveraging telehealth capabilities, funded in part by the CareFirst grant, Richardson said Mosaic has already been able to increase by ten percent the types of services provided to clinicians.

Another grant recipient has seen improvements in reducing unnecessary emergency room visits. Craig Sable, MD, associate chief, division of cardiology, director, echocardiography and telemedicine at the Children’s National Health System, said the grant has helped his facility in many ways, including the ability to hold multi-point conferences with families, physicians, and other caregivers simultaneously from various locations to help provide consistency in care.

Dr. Sable is hoping to use developing data to demonstrate the benefits of telehealth to federal and private payers down the road.

Askew-Means summed it up. “We know that patients and providers are ready, and the technology is pervasive.”

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