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Telehealth for Mental Health: Overcoming the Barriers

Posted by Ben Waxman and Stephanie DeFazio on Jun 12, 2020 11:15:00 AM


Providing mental health services via telehealth has presented barriers. Some of those barriers we are now suddenly finding were false all along.

Today, we take a look at insurance coverage and other issues of access that have made it a challenge for some to receive the support they need through telehealth.

The goal: recognize and resolve those barriers so that care is not delayed for those who need it.

The COVID-19 pandemic has forced the issue and pushed so many of us to get online for interactions we historically have had in person. The demand for telehealth has increased resulting in temporary measures put in place by the the US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) making insurance coverage more readily available for telehealth (video and audio) appointments, including coverage through Medicare, Medicaid, and the Children's Health Insurance Program (CHIP).

As insurance coverage has become more available, the spotlight has focused on the digital divide. In a recent fact sheet on low-income access to telehealth released by the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation at HHS, more than 1 in 6 low-income persons have no internet access, and those living in non-metropolitan areas have less access to the Internet than those in metropolitan areas.

Large bureaucratic assessments and policies are one thing. We wanted to know what it is like on the ground. So, we spoke with a few of our industry experts.

Read on to find out what we learned from them about barriers to care and how services are being delivered effectively…or not.

More accommodations must be made for low-income family access to telehealth

The Commonwealth Fund has written about their focus groups with more than 100 low-income families and 30 primary care physicians over the past two years. They asked about access to digital platforms like telehealth and related out-of-pocket costs that might limit their ability to afford the care they need.

Matthew Biel, MD, MSc, Vice Chair and Division Chief of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at MedStar Georgetown University Hospital, could also attest to seeing these barriers within his own department's work. “I don’t see a national, concerted effort to address the digital divide and how low-income families are struggling to get access to mental health via telehealth,” says Dr. Biel. Although a local non-profit has offered support to his patients by providing them with devices, he feels that insurance providers should accommodate with coverage for devices used for telehealth or the internet connections that make it all work. “I strongly believe that mental health services via telehealth will be permanent for the long-term, so these accommodations must be made,” he says.

Most health insurance plans currently cover telehealth visits

America’s Health Insurance Plans (AHIP), a national non-profit association of health insurers, released a one-pager last month that details how health insurance providers responded to COVID-19. Many health insurance providers expanded coverage for telehealth services to help Americans receive the care they need with audio or video visits from home.

Joseph Shrand, MD, is Chief Medical Officer at Riverside Community Care which focuses their mental health services on children and families, as well as adults. Dr. Shrand mentioned his relief that insurance providers are now reimbursing services for telehealth. “This adaptation has to remain long after coronavirus, sending a message to patients that they’re valuable and to insurance providers that they are valued,” he says.

An online article posted by the Kaiser Family Foundation (KFF) notes that it remains unknown how telehealth will be used after the state of emergency comes to an end, and what coverage will be available. Important outcome research is being conducted and visits are being tracked by the institutions that count these kinds of things. We are looking forward to their reports in the months and years ahead.

We can predict, with a bit of common sense, and a whole lot of past experience in the field, that given access to telehealth, efficacy of care and positive outcomes will push insurers to provide coverage for telehealth to everyone’s advantage. Future reports will back up this assertion. 

Communicating the telehealth opportunity

As the barriers to telehealth services continue to disappear and access grows, the need for provider and consumer adoption will grow as well. The Tessellati team understands the clinician and consumer realities that go into delivering powerful mental health services. Our deep expertise in healthcare communications help clinicians adapt to new technology platforms. And, importantly, our long-standing consumer health education work has always been about helping patients make informed decisions about their care.

We know that clear instructions must be paired with the empathy and authenticity that will prompt behavior change – in this case, use of new telehealth services.

Our team can partner with you to deliver your sensitive external messages effectively to your patients (consumer campaigns), community (brand leadership), and clinical staff (training materials). Adapting and adopting are consistent themes now as we all become capable users of telehealth services.

In our digital world, we are on a quest to continuously improve user experience for both the patient and the clinician.

Recalling our goal: recognize and resolve those barriers so that care is not delayed for those who need it.

To learn more about how we can improve how you provide and communicate your telehealth services, click below.

Telehealth Services

Stay tuned for parts three and four of this four-part telehealth series, as we delve into employer-sponsored support for telehealth and self-care resources for parents.

Topics: Healthcare, Telehealth, Mental Health, insurance barriers, digital divide, healthcare communications, access to healthcare


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