Legislation recently passed in Congress that President Obama is expected to sign into law is designed to better support providers working in remote and underserved regions and expand the use of telemedicine.

But a major goal of the Expanding Capacity for Health Outcomes Act is to expand across the nation a telemedicine program called Project ECHO that started in New Mexico, with the hope that Medicare will start to better support telehealth technologies, says Thomas Ferrante, an associate attorney in the law firm Foley & Lardner. Medicare, he notes, only paid about $17.6 million for telehealth in 2015 while other private and public payers have increasingly expanded reimbursement for services provided remotely.

Today, 31 states—primarily through Medicaid—pay for telemedicine services, in addition to many commercial insurers, Ferrante notes. Interstate licensing compacts, now in force in 18 states with various degrees of implementation, enable providers to offer telemedicine services in more than one state.

Also See: Use of telemedicine grows in long-term care settings

Project ECHO will not directly provide healthcare, but will give education and professional support to rural providers.

The program will use video conferencing technology to link specialists with rural providers to present weekly online lectures in such areas as disease management, rural behavioral health treatment and improving health interventions.

The goal is to increase professional knowledge while offering a network of assistance in the hope that rural providers will feel more supported and retention rates will improve.

ECHO, Ferrante says, is a result of the government realizing that telehealth technology increasingly is being used in rural areas and physicians are becoming more comfortable with it. Additionally, while a Medicare patient has to be at the hospital for providers to get paid, telehealth is a lot less expensive, and more patients can be better served through the use of the technology.

Further, the industry as a whole “is recognizing that telehealth is not a different specialty but a vehicle used to deliver medical services,” he adds.

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