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Stroke Telehealth Bill Could Help Save Stroke Patients

By Sara Heath

Telehealth has tremendous potential to help patients who are otherwise unable to see a physician. Most notably, experts speak of the benefits telehealth has to rural communities. However, a recent House of Representatives bill shows that telehealth can drastically benefit another population -- stroke victims.

telehealth telemedicine extended in Furthering Access to Stroke Telemedicine Act

The bill, Furthering Access to Stroke Telemedicine Act (FAST Act) (HR 2799), advocates a change in the Social Security Act to allow individuals experiencing a stroke to utilize telemedicine, regardless of their location. Presently, the Social Security Act states that Medicare beneficiaries may only access telehealth services when located in rural areas.

FAST Act’s co-sponsors, Representatives Morgan Griffith and Joyce Beatty, state that the bi-partisan legislation is crucial because the first moments after an individual experiences a stroke can be life-saving.

“According to the American Stroke Association, ‘time lost is brain lost.’ Because every minute that passes before a stroke patient is treated, means the death of millions of brain cells,” the pair wrote in a jointly-authored post on TheHill.com. “With quick treatment, stroke patients can walk, talk and continue to lead a productive life.”

Because of the urgency of treating a stroke patient, it is clear that telehealth services -- which connect patients to physicians using telecommunication technology -- can help shave off valuable time in receiving treatment.

However, Griffith and Beatty point out that many stroke patients do not reside in rural areas, and therefore telehealth services are not reimbursed by Medicare. In fact, 94 percent of stroke patients live in urban or suburban areas, and most of them do not have easy access to stroke care. For this reason, the bill proposes a change in the Social Security Act that would give that 94 percent a chance for fast access to stroke treatment.

“Telestroke has proven to be very effective in increasing the speed with which patients get treatment by a stroke neurologist and also the number of patients who get tPA [a common stroke treatment] in both rural and urban areas,” Griffith and Beatty wrote.

FAST Act has received support from the American Heart Association/American Stroke Association (AHA/ASA). AHA/ASA state that extending the use of telemedicine for stroke victims could make great strides in preserving their quality of life.

“The use of telemedicine in the treatment of stroke -- commonly referred to as ‘telestroke’ -- has proven highly effective in improving patient access to quality stroke care,” AHA/ASA state. “Our organizations support a legislative provision that would address an important barrier to the expansion of telestroke services: lack of Medicare reimbursement for telestroke services when the patient originates in an urban or suburban area.”

Aside from the benefits telemedicine can have for stroke victims, AHA/ASA has identified financial savings that extending the services may create.

“Expanding the use of telestroke can save Medicare and Medicaid money by increasing the percentage of stroke patients who are able to be discharged directly home, rather than to inpatient rehabilitation facilities or nursing homes,” AHA/ASA state.

According to an AHA/ASA study, this extension of services could actually produce a net savings of $119 million per year. This is because there would be a decrease in major rehabilitative care.

Thus far, FAST Act has only been introduced to the House of Representatives. However, considering Representatives Griffith and Beatty’s call to action, as well as other legislative efforts to improve telehealth services, this bill may begin to garner more traction.

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