Bridging the Rural Divide

Date: 01/07/2019

Northern Light Health’s Telehealth Advocacy with State and Federal Lawmakers
Expands Access to Care for Opioid Use Disorders and Other Conditions across Maine

At Northern Light Health, we believe we can create a better tomorrow in rural communities across Maine by increasing access to care. For patients with opioid use disorder, we are committed to finding creative solutions to assist in their recovery.
“We have a plan to compensate for our rural geography here in Maine,” said Lisa Harvey-McPherson, Vice President of Government Relations for Northern Light Health. “Some people have to drive for hours to get to Northern Light Acadia Hospital for their treatment, and we can use technology to bridge that rural divide to provide care that’s convenient and close to home.”
Telehealth – also called telemedicine – can help many patients to access healthcare services and providers through their computers or mobile devices. Northern Light Health has been at the forefront of efforts at the state and federal levels to implement policies to expand access to telehealth services, advances that will have a tremendous positive impact for substance use disorder treatment in Maine.
Telehealth is increasingly used by patients in rural communities to connect with doctors and other clinicians. While private insurers cover telehealth services, government health insurance programs like Medicaid and Medicare have been slower to do so.
Northern Light Health and other local advocates worked together to change that.
“We worked closely with legislators and state policy makers to create a comprehensive benefit allowing Medicaid beneficiaries to access telehealth services that are already covered as a face-to-face encounter,” Lisa said. “Access to behavioral health and substance use disorder treatment was a high priority component of expanding the MaineCare telehealth policy.”
At the federal level, Northern Light Health leaders worked in tandem with Maine’s congressional delegation to address to issues with Medicare regulations that, first, denied coverage for telehealth services if the provider were within the same local service area as the patient, and second, prohibited coverage of telehealth services when the patient is in their home. The geographic restriction hit patients in Maine particularly hard as these service areas are based on counties, and Maine’s counties span vast amounts of territory, Lisa said.

Fortunately, this will change in July 2019, when the Support for Patients and Communities Act of 2018 goes into effect. The law will expand telehealth access for Medicare beneficiaries by eliminating both restrictions. Under the new law, Medicare beneficiaries can receive treatment for substance abuse and co-occurring mental health disorders through telehealth, as well as receive those services in their home – regardless of geographic location.
These changes are especially helpful for patients who are being treated with Medication Assisted Therapy, which needs to be coupled with counseling services and requires a daily commitment from patients – some of whom currently need to drive hours for their care.
“When these people have access to services in their local communities and can receive care in their own home, it supports success with treatment and their recovery experience,” Lisa said. “We’re not going to solve a wide variety of health challenges by requiring everyone to get sick and go to the hospital, but we can be ahead of the challenges providing access to those services. It’s up to us to interject into the debate the opportunity technology presents as a solution.”