By Tom Scherberger
At Moffitt Cancer Center in Tampa, doctors confer with patients around the world without leaving the office. They examine pathology slides, offer second opinions and recommend treatment—all through online videoconferencing.
Known as telehealth, this practice is changing the way some patients interact with health care providers: It’s safe, convenient and cost-effective.
“There are many times when the interaction between a provider and a patient is just as well-served through videoconferencing as it is face-to-face, particularly as a first step,” said Robert Keenan, M.D., Moffitt’s chief medical officer and vice president of quality. “That first virtual connection sometimes makes the subsequent in-person visit more efficient and effective.”
But telehealth is far more prevalent among Moffitt’s international patients than with Floridians, because state law does not adequately support the practice.
For example, the state does not require insurance companies to treat a virtual office visit like a real one. Different credentialing requirements among hospitals and for doctors who are licensed in other states also pose barriers. Even prescribing medicine through a telehealth visit is limited, because Florida law restricts the types of medications that may be prescribed online.
Proposals to address those challenges failed to pass in the 2015 legislative session, the victim of differences between the House and Senate over Medicaid expansion and other issues. A renewed push is expected when lawmakers convene their 60-day session on Jan. 12.
Making telehealth more accessible in Florida tops AARP’s legislative agenda this year. Additional priorities include increased assistance for family caregivers, more transparency in proposed utility rates and incentives for small businesses to offer retirement savings plans.
A consensus appears to be emerging to pass telehealth legislation, said Jack McRay, AARP Florida advocacy manager.
Telehealth would particularly help older people in rural areas, where health care options are limited, and people caring for frail family members. Caregivers often must take time off from work to shuttle family members to and from doctor appointments. Advocates of telehealth say time and money could be saved if routine visits were handled through video teleconferencing.
Nearly 2.7 million Floridians provide care to adult family members. That translates to $29.7 billion in uncompensated care. Expanding support for those caregivers is a legislative priority for AARP.
About 58,000 people are on a waiting list for home- and community-based services, and the list continues to grow. Services could include providing help at home, or at a central location, for a few hours a week to relieve family members. Such family care allows older people to stay in their homes instead of institutions.
Creating incentives for small businesses to offer retirement programs is another legislative goal. More than 40 percent of Florida’s private-sector employees work for small businesses, which typically cannot afford to offer private retirement plans.
Advocates say creating savings plans for small businesses would mean less government assistance for workers in their retirement.
As utility rates continue to rise, AARP is pushing for increased transparency at the Public Service Commission. AARP is advocating that the Legislature ban private communication between utilities and the PSC to ensure accountability. In addition, AARP wants the repeal of a state law that allows utilities to raise rates to pay for nuclear power facilities that are never built.
Two years ago AARP helped convince lawmakers pass legislation against texting while driving. But the law only allows police to cite drivers for what is known as a “secondary offense,” if they’ve already been detained for violating another traffic law. AARP Florida supports legislation to make texting while driving a “primary” offense, allowing police to step in whenever they witness this activity.
Tom Scherberger is a writer living in Treasure Island, Fla.