Lawmakers are examining the possibility of expanding telemedicine in Mississippi, which has become even more important during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The House and Senate Insurance committees concluded two days of hearings Tuesday with a discussion on telemedicine and the state employees’ insurance plan.
“I can only speak on behalf of the House, but we need telemedicine in Mississippi first and foremost,” State Rep. Hank Zuber, R-Ocean Springs, and chairman of the House Insurance Committee said in his opening remarks. “Secondly, we need to expand it in Mississippi. We need to do it in a way that is in the best interest of the patients and citizens of Mississippi.”
Telemedicine was utilized and encouraged during the pandemic by both the state Department of Medicaid and the state Department of Insurance as a way to prevent infection and keep patients safe.
“Telehealth has come a long way, part through necessity and part through new technology,” said Robert Baretta, a consultant with telehealth giant Teladoc. The New York-based company is located in 175 countries and all 50 states and reached 10.5 million consultations in only one year.
He said the average remote telehealth visit costs $45, a substantial cost savings over an in-person appointment.
Dr. David Houghton is the system chair and medical director of telehealth and digital medicine with Louisiana-based Ochsner Health. He said in his six years at the helm of Ochsner’s telehealth, they’ve expanded to remote stroke and psychiatry care, neurology, cardiology and the management of chronic diseases such as diabetes.
“Telehealth is a unique add-on for the care that providers are able to give is based on the fact that our quality outcomes in telehealth in general are laudable and rapid uptake, especially in the last 18 months,” Houghton said. He also said that patient satisfaction and cost effectiveness were two other advantages of remote medicine.
The tele-stroke care from Ochsner allows a patient in one of the group’s 13 hospitals to remain there while receiving care from a neurologist not on site.
There is some skepticism about larger groups that offer telemedicine service.
Dr. Lucious Lampton, a family practitioner from Magnolia who sits on the state Board of Health, told the joint committee that he advises caution when it comes to allowing unrestricted access to telemedicine statewide. Lampton has practiced in Magnolia for 25 years.
“A wild west of telemedicine will negatively affect health outcomes,” Lampton said. “Strengthening telemedicine used in an established (doctor/patient) relationship will improve dramatically patient outcomes.”
Lampton wants practitioners to be paid at the same rate by insurance companies and patients for complex telemedicine appointments as they would with a physical office visit.
One area where telemedicine has great expanded in Mississippi during the COVID-19 pandemic is in the field of psychiatric care. Dr. Finn Perkins from the Mississippi Psychiatric Association told the joint committee that in his Flowood practice with four other psychiatrists, they see about 150 patients and 10 percent of them are visiting the group’s office. Another 10 percent are audio only while the other 80 percent are using video chat for appointments.
He said shame of seeing a psychiatrist, other medical conditions that can render patients vulnerable to COVID-19 and lack of transportation make some in-person visits difficult or impossible.
The Mississippi Department of Health issued a new set of regulations regarding telehealth in March.
The regulations that went in affect earlier this year require any telehealth provider to register with the Mississippi Department of Health’s Office of Licensure after they register as a business in Mississippi with the Secretary of State’s office. Each registration, which costs $50, is good for two years.
The registration certification is non-transferrable and any change in ownership by the permittee will require new registration.
There is good news for state employees when it comes to their health insurance.
Health insurance provided for state workers is some of the cheapest regionally, if not nationally. According to data presented to the joint committee, the total premiums for employee health insurance were $418 in 2020, less than Alabama ($519), Arkansas ($526), Louisiana ($763) and Tennessee ($679).
The average total premium is $626.
The employee share is the second lowest next to Texas, which pays the entire cost, at $40, compared with an average of $92.16.