Advocates make early pitch for telehealth

Some of Florida’s most influential healthcare groups are urging state lawmakers to expand the use of telehealth — web and videoconferencing technology that allows doctors and other healthcare specialists to treat patients — as a way to save money and deal with a growing shortage of doctors.

Several powerful institutions, inluding Baptist Health South Florida, the Florida Hospital Association and Associated Industries of Florida, held a conference in Tallahassee last week to build support for telehealth in advance of the 2015 legislative session.

Baptist Health South Florida Vice President Phillis Oeters said telehealth programs had saved Baptist $18million — and reduced the mortality rate by 40 percent.

“It’s saving lives, saving money,” Oeters said. “All hospitals need to have the flexibility to be innovative and have these kinds of programs. They are transforming the healthcare industry.”

Business leaders are also on board.

“The Florida Chamber believes telemedicine can help lower overall healthcare costs while providing greater access to care in all corners of our state,” President Mark Wilson wrote in an email Wednesday. “And with six million more residents on the horizon, millions of new visitors each year, aging physicians, and a lack of healthcare professionals, our state needs a better approach to health care — one that is focused on wellness and healthier outcomes with innovations that will make us stronger, healthier and more competitive.”

In a report released this month, Florida TaxWatch found that Florida could save more than $1billion annually by enabling healthcare providers to use digital communications technology.

“Florida competes with the best states in the nation for business, but we are failing in the healthcare arena,” Florida TaxWatch President Dominic Calabro said. “In the fight to bring quality, affordable healthcare to its residents, Florida is losing to other large competitor states like Texas and California, which directly impacts quality of life, business and the state economy.”

Telehealth is not new to Florida. But because insurance companies are not required to reimburse healthcare providers for telehealth services, the services are not widely offered.

Florida lawmakers discussed telehealth legislation during the 2014 legislative session. While they agreed on the need to expand the use of communications technology in healthcare, they failed to find consensus on several key points.

There were differing opinions as to whether out-of-state telehealth providers should be licensed in Florida, or Florida should accept licensure in other states.

Another contentious issue: Who should be allowed to practice telehealth?

The Florida House supported broad language that would have allowed a wide variety of healthcare professions to practice telehealth. The Senate took a position supported by the Florida Medical Association that the practice should be limited to licensed physicians.

There was never a compromise. The bills died in the waning hours of the legislative session.

The discussion may change now that new leaders are in place.

Former Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, was a strong supporter of the Florida Medical Association. The chamber’s new leader, Republican Andy Gardiner, is a vice president of the not-for-profit hospital Orlando Health. He is open to discussing the future of telehealth, spokeswoman Katie Betta said last week.

Betta pointed out that there were still “significant reimbursement and liability challenges that need to be addressed.” She also noted that Gardiner did not want to see telehealth used as a way to expand scope of practice.

“He believes those issues need to be discussed and debated separately,” she said.

Florida Medical Association general counsel Jeff Scott said his organization still feels strongly that telemedical services should be provided only by licensed Floridia physicians.

“We are in support of these services,” Scott said. “But telehealth or telemedicine should be done properly with safeguards in place to make sure Floridians are receiving high-quality care from appropriately trained professionals.”

Telehealth isn’t the only high-profile healthcare issue likely to surface during the 60-day legislative session, which begins in March.

Democrats already are pushing for legislation that would allow Florida to accept billions of federal dollars to expand health insurance coverage for the poor. Earlier this month, Republican House Speaker Steve Crisafulli said that Medicaid expansion was unlikely to happen.

Lawmakers are also expected to revive efforts to grow the medical tourism industry in Florida. The plan aims to make make Florida an international destination for people seeking high-quality medical care.

Contact Kathleen McGrory at kmcgrory@MiamiHerald.com.