A bill signed recently by Gov. Chris Sununu will allow more patients to utilize telemedicine services, and it has the full support of a local school that serves children with disabilities.
Telemedicine, also known as telehealth, connects patients and doctors virtually through video conferencing. Using the same downloadable program for video chatting, patients can also send videos or photos to their doctor for diagnoses, such as for a skin rash.
The trend has been growing in the state and beyond for both convenience and cost savings. But in the Granite State, it has been virtually inaccessible for those on Medicaid — federal- and state-funded health insurance that serves people of low income and those with disabilities, among other groups — wishing to use it for their annual checkup.
New Hampshire already allows Medicaid billing for telemedicine services by medical specialists, but the new bill, which takes effect in October, extends the billing to primary care providers, pediatricians, counselors, substance abuse service providers and more.
It will also add telemedicine services as a required benefit for private insurers.
Dr. Andrew Schuman, a pediatrician at Dartmouth-Hitchcock’s Community Practice Group in Nashua, has been using telehealth with his patients for the past year, as long as their insurance covered it.
Most of these visits are followups on appointments for attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), mental health diagnoses or common skin ailments like acne.
For those who live in rural areas, like many New Hampshire towns, Schuman said telehealth has been very helpful — and to now have it extended to his Medicaid patients is exciting.
In New Hampshire, Medicaid served approximately 133,200 people in 2017, according to the latest data available from the N.H Department of Health and Human Services.
“We have a lot of patients who are distant, have to drive an hour or more,” Schuman said. “There are also patients who live in Nashua, but go to Keene State, for example, so they can have their medications managed this way.”
Cedarcrest Center for Children with Disabilities in Keene started using telehealth nearly three years ago, as one of the first pilot programs in the state through Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center in Lebanon, according to President and CEO Cathy A. Gray.
The center’s patients see several specialists, and before telehealth, Gray said the burden of transporting them to and from appointments put a strain on both the children and the center’s employees.
“Before we started with telehealth, the nursing staff would have to bring the children to Dartmouth one at a time as they had appointments,” Gray said. “Using telehealth, anywhere from seven to eight children can be seen in a half day. ... It’s very efficient.”
Though the center’s patients won’t be directly affected by the new bill as specialists were already covered under Medicaid, Gray said Cedarcrest has been a strong advocate of the legislation.
For those giving testimony in favor of the bill before it was signed, Gray said she provided the center’s positive experience to showcase telehealth’s benefits.
Not only does it help with transportation, especially in rural communities where travel time can amount to hours, but Gray said it adds more opportunity for well-rounded care.
She noted multiple instances when, if needed, she could bring in additional medical staff to assist during a telemedicine conference.
“When you go to Dartmouth, you have whoever can take the child, but when the appointment is here ... we can pull [another] staff person for the 10 minutes needed. It really has improved quality of care,” she said.