Policy changes make telehealth possible especially for non-COVID19 issues

Faribault Daily News reports…

While the technology enabling the significant shift to telemedicine has been in place for years, most providers have preferred to stick with face-to-face appointments. In addition, Medicare and other health insurance often haven’t reimbursed care providers for virtual appointments.

On both counts, change has come rapidly. On March 30, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services announced that it would reimburse physicians for telehealth visits at the same rate as for in-person visits.

Effective March 1, the change covers checkups and medical care provided for any reason, not just coronavirus care. Medicare also expanded access by scrapping a rule that required all telehealth visits to take place on devices meeting federal online privacy and security standards.

U.S. Sens. Tina Smith and Amy Klobuchar feel that doesn’t go far enough. Together, Minnesota’s two senators introduced the Health Care at Home Act last Friday, with the backing of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, the American Psychiatric Association and other organizations. The bill is designed to reduce the gap in coverage for telemedicine visits in comparison to in-person visits. It also prohibits restrictions as to which particular medical issues are eligible for telemedicine reimbursement.

Other restrictions existed at the state level, including limits on the number of reimbursable telemedicine visits per week and a requirement that telemedicine appointments be conducted over video chat rather than by phone.

Maisha Giles, the Minnesota Department of Health’s behavioral health director, said her agency has worked rapidly to help care providers across the state adapt to telemedicine. In addition, she said, the department has provided flexible grant funding for providers.

MN Nonprofits boost mental health services – great news for those with broadband

Minneapolis Star Tribune reports…

Minnesota nonprofits are boosting mental health services, bracing for a wave created by the COVID-19 pandemic.

This is the “calm before the storm,” said Shannah Mulvihill, executive director of Mental Health Minnesota, a St. Paul nonprofit. “We’re concerned there’s going to be a flood of people in need of help. We will continue to see an increase in anxiety, depression and PTSD-like symptoms for a long time going forward.”

Rising unemployment and social isolation during the COVID-19 pandemic is exacerbating anxiety, depression, eating disorders and other mental health issues. According to the Washington Post, a federal emergency hotline for people in emotional distress registered a more than 1,000% increase in April compared with last year. And, in a Kaiser Family Foundation poll, nearly half of Americans reported the coronavirus outbreak was harming their mental health.

The article outlines some resources and trends and continues…

In fact, therapy and other mental health services are easier to access with providers shifting to telehealth, said Sue Abderholden, executive director of NAMI Minnesota.

What they neglect to point is that only people with broadband can access these resources. They do list a few phone numbers but that’s not the same as a face to face session or for those who need it a text-based conversation. As many of us are quarantined with loves ones at our side all-day, every-day alternate resources that are quieter may be welcome to protect privacy and safety.

Strut Your Stuff: Broadband projects in Aitkin

Part of becoming a Blandin Broadband Community (BBC), is the opportunity to show off what you’ve been doing related to broadband in your community. It was great to hear from folks in Aitkin today.

Like all of the latest BBCs, COVID played a big role in both preparing the community for the pandemic quarantine and stopped projects in their tracks. In Aitkin we heard a lot about healthcare. Turns out they were able to serve 900 patients online in the first few weeks of the quarantine because they were prepared – but also because policy, especially around reimbursement made it financially possible. In fact, the health care folks were somehow able to expedite a plan scheduled really through the end of the year to deploy measures in weeks. Wow!

There were also some projects like the fancy new super-efficient conference room at the Birch Street Center where at first were put on hold as communities meetings were cancelled but now it back in play as they are planning to use it to stream Tai Chi classes for local seniors.

Aitkin is still working on getting broadband and it was good to hear about their short term plans to get it to people immediately but also long term goals to make sure they got what they needed.

Senator Tina Smith promotes telehealth during coronavirus pandemic

KTOE reports

The COVID-19 pandemic has led to a significant increase in telehealth services for both physical and behavioral health. U.S. Senator Tina Smith has introduced legislation that would help better fund these practices:

“We’ve seen an over thousand-fold increase in the use of telehealth. Before the outbreak, we were just looking at around 11-hundred telehealth visits per day in Minnesota. And by late April that was up to 15,000 telehealth visits a day.”

The bill also ensures providers are getting fully reimbursed by the insurance companies for their telehealth services.

Strut Your Stuff: Broadband projects in Tower MN

Part of becoming a Blandin Broadband Community (BBC), is the opportunity to show off what you’ve been doing related to broadband in your community. Tower is the smallest community that has been a Blandin Broadband Community. It’s fun to hear about what they are doing and how they are building greater demand for broadband.

The local public school has a slick new computer lab. Public buildings have computers for public use. Great ideas and they have done a lot to help education local residents to the need. Unfortunately, the pandemic has clearly had an impact on access to those computers. WiFi hotspots in the campgrounds are being used more than usual – as people are able to get access there, which helps them work and learn.

People are feeling the pain without access at home. There was a gentleman who couldn’t access telehealth with his connection at home so he had to go into the hospital for a dermatology appointment. Another opted to use a smartphone and cell access over home broadband for Zoom calls because it was unreliable. And reports on kids unable to learn online from home.

Partial transcript added May 27:


May 14, 2020

44:54 – “It’s exciting, we’ve had the St. Louis County Community Dev. Dir. step in last time and for them to be in touch with the process and understand the direction we’re going…how this work can help us leverage other State and Fed funding…really clicked for St. Louis Co. I think we’re going in a good direction.”

52.36 minutes – “Working with PCs for people…they’re a great bunch. Fun to work with and they fill the need. It was a really positive experience.”

54.19 – “…now that it’s out there (broadband), there is a lot more understanding of it and a need for it.”  “We had no idea how you even go about this, and what a wonderful learning experience it’s been for us. I will not hesitate to take on another project on like this.”

55:11 – “…it’s been very positive all the way around. We had those hurdles at the beginning…we’ll keep at it!”

57:56 – “…we couldn’t have done it without the whole steering committee….Richard has been a great asset, and Pastor Doug, too…And it goes without saying, Kate and John!”

1:02:17: “I’ve seen four of them now (Leadership Webinars). I follow Ann’s blog regularly…It’s great work. She keeps you abreast of everything as far as state government and grant possibilities. She does a great job.”

1:11:40 “We are so lucky to have you guys come into our lives!”

” We don’t really have an ability to get any other internet here right now.”

1:14:39 “Mine would be way back in November of 2018 when Bill first came to Tower and put a presentation on there. From then forward, there was so many people I’ve met that said they’d move here but they don’t have the connectivity. I met a fishing guy that has a website…that said he’d move here permanently, and so would a couple of his friends, if there was connectivity. I met an architect, who is semi-retired who lives in the cities; he won’t move here because he can’t get connectivity. But he would if he could. The other day a friend of mine had to go to the dermatologist and it was going to be virtual, but he couldn’t connect. So, they had to cancel the appointment and he had to go down during COVID to the hospital, and he didn’t like that too much. But he went down and had to have it done there.”

Strut Your Stuff: Broadband projects in Rock County

Part of becoming a Blandin Broadband Community (BBC), is the opportunity to show off what you’ve been doing related to broadband in your community. My favorite part of the talk with Rock County is when they said they felt prepared (as anyone could be) for the pandemic because they had adequate broadband.

And since the Governor spoke about loosening of stay at home rules, it was interesting to hear how they are planning to meet the needs this summer wrestling essential worker childcare needs with childcare and distraction needs from others. They have shifted to providing a lot of services online – from mental health resources (hope to post more on that later), school lessons and community education. They have even moved county commission meetings online, which led to some interested discussion of at-home business casual dress.

Rock County really is in a good position with broadband. They are working on devices for all (students) and again just wrestling with the new world.

Added May 27

Rock County

May 14, 2020

12:53 – Kyle Oldre’s statement: “You know what we’re going through with distance learning…such a heart-felt “thank you” to Alliance and what they have done. And the entire team at the school and trying to deliver this distance learning. We couldn’t have done it but for Alliance, but we also couldn’t have done it but for Blandin and PCs for People. When you think of what we were collectively tasked to do…during this pandemic, to make sure every student had the opportunity to learn…we got to the point in Luverne where they reached out to me that there was one student that didn’t have some type of connectivity, and that was because they were transitioning and moving, and the library bailed them out with trying to help them with a hotspot, which was also a Blandin-funded item…Both school districts that are located in Rock County, HBC and Luverne, were able to do this because of broadband and because of the team that was put together with the assistance of Blandin. So, hats off to Blandin. Hats off to Alliance. Our students are collectively better for being involved with you.”

19:59 –  Kyle Oldre On Magnolia Campground:

“We’ve had some essential workers that’ve moved in this spring…one is a traveling nurse living out of their camper while remote working. They log on every night through that Wi-Fi and…she’s able to conduct that (tele-health) in a campground…because of the backbone that’s provided…That was a Blandin-coined tool (the tele-health, distance learning, tele-commerce) certainly that’s one of the stools that’s being provided by the Wi-Fi in the campground…They’re conducting essential work out of the campground because they’re able to travel down and do those things.”

59:09 – Kyle Oldre: “I think as a society we are learning from this event. You’re seeing that by businesses moving to remote (work) where they can. We’re going to have smaller office complexes because they’ll have 25-50% of their workforce always working from home…Social Services already told 25% of their staff they’re staying home until the end of December because they found that they’re as efficient, or more efficient, working from home. They’re engaged and there’s no reason…they’re doing their follow-ups, just like this…what we’re all learning is that we can survive in this technology world, regardless of age, and it actually works quite well if used properly. The tools, whether it’s PowerPoints and shared screens…I never dreamt I’d be doing this stuff. But you’re able to do it. I could talk to someone in Biwabik today and we could have a great conversation for $16/month on my Zoom account…What I’m finding is that it works.”

1:46:17 – Kyle Oldre: “Last week I finished my 27th year with the county. When I started one of the department heads came in and said, “I want to buy a computer.” And I’m like, “Well, what do you want to buy?” And he wanted a gigabyte of memory. I told him he’d lost his mind. I said, “You could put every record produced in Rock County on that machine, there’s no reason to buy a gigabyte.” And I say that story because in 27 years I’m realizing how wrong I was, and how valuable this technology is, and how important it is, whether we’re in government or the private sector to continue to say, “Look, you can do more. It’s better. You’ve got to continue to capitalize on the assets that you have.” This is truly a bedrock asset for this county…and I offer this to Blandin: you have been so generous to the county. Now and previously with the number of cohorts that have gone through, and the training, and now with this grant…that if there’s anything we can do to assist you, whether it’s training in other communities, or whether it’s advocating at the capitol, whatever you need from us don’t hesitate to ask because you have been so good to us. And I want to make sure you realize how valuable we see this partnership. It really is more than just the money. The money helps, don’t get me wrong, but it is more than the money. And we just need to continue to educate and continue to advocate and do what we do in the positions we’re in.

Alexandria Area Community Foundation Funds telehealth and other COVID-19 needs

The Alexandria Echo reports…

Those serving on the front lines of the fight against the coronavirus are getting help from the Alexandria Area Community Foundation.

The foundation recently named the most recent grant recipients from the Alexandria Response Fund to support local COVID-19 relief efforts.

Eight grants totaling $40,000 were awarded:

  • $5,000 to support childcare tuition assistance at the Alexandria Area YMCA.

  • $5,000 to support telehealth counseling through the Village Family Center.

  • $5,000 for emergency housing and financial resources for victims of domestic violence to Someplace Safe Douglas County Advocacy.

  • $5,000 for lumber and supplies to Habitat for Humanity of Douglas County.

  • $5,000 to Salvation Army: Northern Division to support COVID-19 response in Douglas County.

  • $5,000 to support the current food purchase budget of Douglas County Outreach Food Shelf.

  • $5,000 to support client access and transition to telehealth through Lutheran Social Services.

  • $5,000 to support basic need supplies through Love INC of Douglas County Lakes Area.