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Coronavirus Crisis Generates Telehealth Boom in Florida


For years telehealth struggled to get a foothold in Florida. State and federal regulations, combined with resistance from providers and health insurance companies, created hurdles blocking its use.

All that changed with the pandemic. Suddenly, millions more Floridians under stay-at-home orders could have a doctor’s appointment by video. Health care experts and practitioners say virtual visits have exploded.

At Moffitt Cancer Center in Tampa, a busy week before the pandemic meant 30 virtual appointments a day. But by late April, with much of the state homebound, a typical week saw more than 1,200 telehealth sessions via smartphones, computers and other devices.

Patients liked it, more skeptical doctors quickly embraced it, and insurers eased their billing requirements for providers.

Tim Haifley, 45, a cancer patient living near Tallahassee, was experiencing a high fever and needed to confer with his oncologist at Moffitt. Instead of driving 300 miles, he made a telehealth appointment through Zoom.

“It was an ideal solution for me,” he said. “I’ve had virtual business meetings before but never with a doctor. I benefited greatly from it.”

Cristina Naso, Moffitt’s virtual health director, said providers will need help getting greater telehealth acceptance from insurers after the pandemic.

That would mean making permanent some temporary changes, such as Medicare’s decision to cover telehealth visits. Providers also have to consider security and privacy issues in using technology like FaceTime and Zoom. But the trend is clear.

“Once people realize they don’t have to trot into a doctor’s office for a lot of the things they used to go in for, they’re not going to want to go back,” said Jeff Johnson, AARP Florida state director.

Loosening restrictions

AARP advocated for years to ease state restrictions on telehealth before winning the right, last year, for out-of-state doctors to treat patients in the state. Unlike most states, Florida does not require insurance companies to cover telehealth visits.

The Florida Medical Association has urged state regulators to require insurance companies to do that. That hasn’t happened, but many more began covering telehealth visits during the crisis.

AARP will continue to press legislators to require parity in telehealth insurance coverage, Johnson said.

During the pandemic, medical providers were gaining real-time experience and data on the effectiveness of technology.

“In some ways this is both an opportunity and an experiment,” Tricia Neuman, senior vice president at the Kaiser Family Foundation, said during an AARP telephone town hall in April.

“A lot of providers were reluctant to jump aboard,” said Philippe Spiess, M.D., Moffitt’s medical director of virtual health. “A lot of those people are now firm believers and adopters.”

Visits requiring a hands-on exam must still be done in person. But routine appointments to discuss lab work or imaging are well suited to the technology.

Virtual visits may require a secure internet connection and more patient preparation. “So if you’re following your blood pressure, make sure you have your readings,” says Joe Kvedar, president of the American Telemedicine Association.

Tom Scherberger is a writer living in Tampa.

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