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Kaiser Permanente Agrees to Expand Telemental Health Services

The health system, in an agreement with California regulators, will expand its telehealth platform in the state to improve access to telemental health services, new programs and follow-up care.

Source: ThinkStock

By Eric Wicklund

- California’s Kaiser Foundation Health Plan will be expanding its telehealth platform for behavioral health services to meet long-standing complaints over a lack of access and follow-up care.

The announcement by Oakland-based Kaiser Permanente follows an agreement with the California Department of Managed Health Care “to correct identified issues with the plan’s oversight of and access to behavioral health services,” according to a DMHC press release.

“The DMHC and Kaiser Permanente have worked diligently over the past two years to craft an agreement designed to ensure the plan’s enrollees receive timely access to behavioral health services,” DMHC Director Shelley Rouillard said in the release. “Our goal has always been to compel the plan to fix the access problems we have identified and ensure that enrollees receive timely access to behavioral health services. We believe this agreement will achieve that goal.”

Kaiser is bound by California’s timely access laws, which state a patient must receive care within 48 hours for an urgent problem, or wait no more than 10 days for an appointment with a mental health provider.

Telemental health is one of the fastest growing telehealth service lines in the country, responsible for some 40 percent of the nation’s new telehealth programs in the past year. Organizations like the American Telemedicine Association and the national healthcare law firm of Epstein Becker Green have issued reports in the past year analyzing each state’s telemental health regulations and resources.

Kaiser Permanente – whose CEO noted in 2016 that telehealth and mHealth interactions between members and providers had surpassed in-person visits  the previous year – will be “adding and updating therapy rooms with advanced technology for videoconferencing and consultations,” according to Patrick Courneya, MD, executive vice president and chief medical officer of the Kaiser Foundation Health Plan and Kaiser Foundation Hospitals.

“As a result of the work we have done over the past several years to improve and track appointment wait times, Kaiser Permanente now has the most detailed, robust and useful tools for measuring timely access in California,” Courneya said in a press release.

“We have also been working on challenges that go far beyond increasing staff and improving access,” he added, in a nod to mHealth and telehealth programs that target improved outcomes and increased patient engagement. “Our clinical teams of psychiatrists, therapists and other caregivers are innovating new methods to engage patients that can provide tangible measurements of the progress they are making.”

Per the agreement, Kaiser will hired an outside consultant “to advise the plan on how it can improve its oversight of its behavioral health system and quickly address access problems.”

The process includes deliverables and benchmarks that Kaiser must meet to avoid financial penalties from the DMHC.

The DMHC first identified problems with the Kaiser health plan in 2012, leading to a $4 million fine. In 2015 and again this year, the agency identified six major deficiencies in the plan’s behavioral healthcare services division, based on routine surveys.

Kaiser Permanente has been among the nation’s leading health systems in deploying mHealth and telehealth technology. Last October, CEO Bernard Tyson pointed out that the health system saw some 110 million people in 2015, with roughly 59 million connecting through an online portal, smartphone app or virtual visit platform – about 52 percent of the health system’s total visits that year.

“We are going through a major transformation in healthcare,” Tyson pointed out during his keynote at the Salesforce.com Dreamforce conference in San Francisco. “Because we were all-knowing, we built the entire healthcare industry where everyone has to come to us, but now we are reversing the theory where people have to come to us for everything, so we’ve invested billions in our technology platform.”

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