The push to permanently expand telemedicine across Texas

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BASTROP, Texas (KXAN) — When it dipped into the single digits during the winter freeze, David Patterson felt the pain. 

David Patterson said telemedicine has been a game changer in how his doctors have helped him manage his chronic back pain. (Courtesy: David Patterson) 

“When we have bad weather, like what we just had in February, you know the coldness, because I have severe arthritis in both my hips basically, so I can feel the pain or the high humidity,” Patterson explained.  

His chronic pain is also due to a disc impingement, spinal cord damage in his lower back and cervical spine damage. He said just in the last two months his back has gone out twice. 

“I’m just kind of trying to stay away from surgeries, because I’ve had several surgeries already in the past, you know, and trying to get through COVID too,” he explained. 

Patterson, 55, is also a cancer survivor and is worried about contracting the virus. He said because of his underlying health conditions, he’s been able to get treated for his pain through telemedicine over the last year. 

“If I get infected with my preexisting conditions, my wife gets infected — they can cause, you know, basically severe consequences or even death,” Patterson explained. “There’s a lot of us who have not been vaccinated yet… so we cannot afford to take the chances.” 

Confusion after return to more normalcy

Last year, rules temporarily changed in Texas allowing for additional types of doctor appointments to happen virtually. 

As the state returns to more normalcy, there are questions about whether that broader use of telemedicine will continue. 

Patterson said he hopes so but was recently surprised to find out he couldn’t schedule a virtual appointment with Advanced Pain Care

“When Gov. Greg Abbott lifted his emergency order in early March, it was widely thought that the Medical Board also rescinded their rule on telemedicine, but it turns out there was a separate rule allowing us to continue with telemedicine,” said Dr. Mark Malone, president of Advanced Pain Care.  

Malone explained they stopped telemedicine for about two weeks, because there was some confusion but offered curbside appointments as another option to patients concerned about COVID-19. 

He said his staff is vaccinated and safety measures in place have allowed them to stay open. They screen patients, social distance, masks are still required and staffers wear gloves. 

“During the pandemic, of course, a lot of people are afraid, and some are at truly great risk to be seen in-person. And so, we have the stay on this rule. So, we are allowed to see pain patients and prescribe medicine over telemedicine,” Malone explained. 

According to a spokesperson with the Texas Medical Board (TMB), the board’s emergency rule expanding the use of telemedicine is still in effect. 

The board’s emergency rule regarding prescriptions was renewed earlier this month and will continue until May 1. 

“The emergency rule continues to allow for telephone refill of certain prescriptions to established chronic pain patients as long as the patient has been seen by the prescribing physician, or health professional… in the last 90 days either in-person or via telemedicine using audio and video two-way communication,” said the rule on TMB’s website. 

The future of telemedicine 

Abbott said during his State of the State address last month that he wants to permanently expand access to telemedicine services. 

A number of bills have been introduced this legislative session regarding telemedicine. Several have already been heard in committee hearings. 

Those bills would include a pilot project to provide emergency telemedicine medical services in rural areas and reimbursement and payment of claims for telemedicine medical services and telehealth services under certain health benefit plans. 

A recent study showed that as many physician offices closed last February to April, the use of telehealth quickly escalated. 

David Patterson said one of the few things he’s able to do during the pandemic is play with his puppy in their backyard. (Courtesy: David Patterson) 

The COVID-19 Healthcare Coalition Telehealth Impact Study detailed state-by-state claims through November 2020. 

In Texas, just in April of last year, there were 796,000 insurance claims filed — about 27% were for behavioral and mental health treatment. 

The number of claims tapered off after practices reopened and did a combination of in-person and telehealth appointments. 

For Patterson the option to see his pain doctor virtually has been a game changer, which he said has kept his family safe. 

“Telemedicine needs to stay in place, and it needs to be an option for all,” Patterson said. “It needs to be an option for people with preexisting conditions such as myself. People who have disabilities.” 

KXAN investigative intern Gabriella Ouellette contributed to this report.  

Copyright 2021 Nexstar Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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