As a champion of legislation to modernize outdated health care practices, Rep. Doyle Heffley (R-Carbon) today applauded the state's announcement to increase state Medicaid recipients' access to specialist care by expanding coverage of telemedicine consultations.

"Telehealth provides cost-savings benefits to individual patients, family members and health care providers," said Heffley. "By expanding access to telehealth services, a greater percentage of the underserved across Pennsylvania will be able to access technological advances that promise better and more comprehensive delivery of health care."

Telehealth services are the use of telecommunications technologies and electronic information to support long-distance clinical health care, professional health-related education, public health, and health administration. Heffley's telehealth legislation, House Bill 1939, would allow all Medicaid providers who use telehealth to be reimbursed for their services.

The bill awaits consideration in the House Health Committee.

The state Department of Public Welfare began providing reimbursement coverage for consultations performed using telecommunication technology related to high-risk obstetrical services and psychopharmacology on Dec. 1, 2007. Under the department's original policy, the telemedicine consultation is provided to the medical assistance recipient during the course of an office visit involving the recipient's primary care provider who may be a physician, certified nurse practitioner or certified nurse midwife using telecommunication technology that includes video conferencing and telephone.

Several changes to the agency's coverage of telemedicine recently went into effect, including:

* Allowing all physician specialists who are enrolled in the program to provide outpatient consultations to medical assistance recipients using interactive telecommunication technology.

* Revising the type of telecommunication technology that may be used to provide a telemedicine consultation to require, at a minimum, interactive audio and video equipment, to allow two-way, real-time interactive communication between the patient and the physician at the distant site.

* Removing the requirement for telemedicine consultations to be performed during an office visit with the referring provider present, and will allow the recipient to access the consultation at an enrolled office site, the originating site, of the referring provider as well as other participating physicians, certified registered nurse practitioners or certified nurse midwives.

For a full list of the department's changes, visit its website at dpw.state.pa.us.

Kim Sargent, vice president of patient care services at Saint Luke's Miners Memorial Hospital, said telemedicine redefines how health care is delivered to patients, especially those who are unable to travel to larger medical centers. "Telemedicine links our patients to St. Luke's University Network, ultimately giving the patient the expertise in specialized care that is needed," said Sargent. Similarly,

Joe Guardiani, director of fund development and government relations at Blue Mountain Health System, said relaxing the reimbursement process for telehealth services will make telehealth services more accessible to the most vulnerable populations across the Carbon County community and entire state.

"Our telemedicine project with Lehigh Valley Hospital has netted us some terrific outcomes to date," added Guardiani. "Since our collaboration with the telehealth project at Lehigh Valley, we are able to provide highly skilled infectious disease consults and treatment for our patients, which eliminates the need for a transfer to a more costly tertiary center and most importantly allowed the patient to remain in their own community."

For instance, Guardiani said, since the hospital's joint venture began in February 2011, 108 patients were able to remain in Blue Mountain's Gnaden Huetten and/or Palmerton hospitals for treatment, and nine patients were transferred. Before the telehealth services, those patients would have been transferred to different hospitals.

"Efficiency in patient access, as demonstrated through telehealth services, not only helps promote wellness, but it can also assist in making the whole system work in a more cost-effective, proficient manner," said Heffley.

For more legislative information, or to watch his Legislative Report on telehealth services, visit his website at RepHeffley.com.