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Florida County Offers Free Telemental Health to Uninsured Residents

Polk County is using a voter-approved fund for indigent healthcare to finance a telehealth program that enables those living under the federal poverty line to access mental health services on a mobile device or at telehealth stations.

Source: ThinkStock

By Eric Wicklund

- A Florida county is offering free telemental health services for low- and no-income residents, available on either a mobile device or at telehealth stations set up in select locations.

Polk County authorities expect to serve some 84,000 uninsured residents – or 13 percent of the county’s population - through the program, which is funded by taxes. Voters in 2016 approved a 25-year extension of a half-cent sales tax to fund healthcare services for indigent residents, setting aside about $40 million a year for a variety of services.

Officials say the telehealth program will bring needed behavioral healthcare to an underserved segment of the population. And it will include free non-narcotic prescriptions.

“There are so many geographical barriers and transportation issues for clients,” Amy-Erin Blakely, vice president of behavioral health for IMPOWER, an Orlando-based agency that works with the state to deliver telemental health services, told Winter Haven-based News Chief. “Especially in rural areas, it is such a hardship that people do not make it to their appointments, then do not get their medications.”

“People think, ‘I don’t have the skill level,’ but it is amazing how simple it is,” she added. “It is a link that is e-mailed or texted to them. They click on the link, put in a code and they are on a high-quality video platform talking with their provider. It is very, very simple.”

The program is one of many across the country aimed at improving healthcare access for underserved populations, but one of just a few to create a publicly funded telehealth service. Many are grant-funded, supported by providers or health plans, or carved into existing programs with the hope of paying their way by reducing costs.

In Seattle, for instance, Harborview Medical Center teamed up with the Seattle/King County Health Care for Homeless Network in 2014 to send mobile health teams out to check on the city’s homeless population. The program, funded by a $170,000 grant, has reportedly cut ER visits by 25 percent and halved hospital stays for patients treated for at least six months.

And in Texas, a collaboration involving the University of Texas School of Public Health, AT&T, IBM, Walmart and PricewaterhouseCoopers is pushing remote monitoring tools and services to underserved populations identified as high-end healthcare users. The program’s goal is to reach these people with health and wellness advice that improves their care management before they end up in the hospital.

“Preventative health maintenance is the cornerstone to improving chronic disease management,” Dr. Lynda Chin, of the University of Texas School of Public Health, told “We need to get these patients to a point where they care about their health. Better engagement leads to better health, fewer complications and better clinical outcomes, both short-term and long-term.”

In Polk County, uninsured residents and those living at or below 200 percent of the federal poverty line can access the telemental health program, which includes prescriptions available at select pharmacies or delivered to the patient. For those without a mobile device, a telehealth station has been set up in Lakeland, run by Lakeland Volunteers in Medicine, and the county is negotiating to open several more sites.

IMPOWER was launched in 1994, began using telehealth six years ago and is now a complete virtual care platform, having closed its last facility in 2017. The group’s healthcare providers work out of their homes or private offices, offering online services within two days of a request.

The organization has a three-year contract with Polk County to offer up to $2 million worth of telemental healthcare.

Blakely said about 70 percent of the organization’s services are for psychiatric care, including providing prescriptions to behavioral health clients, and the rest is counseling and therapy sessions.

“We always refer clients for therapy as well as psychiatric services but not all people want that and it is not required,” she said.


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