A health care system serving six southern West Virginia counties received more than $900,000 to enhance its telehealth services.
Southern West Virginia Health System, also known as Lincoln Primary Care Center Inc., was awarded $967,304 from the Federal Communications Commission on Wednesday through a newly created COVID-19 telehealth program.
The FCC received $200 million through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act in March to help providers across the country enhance their remote services. It reports that this last round of allocations was the FCC’s seventh. On May 13, the agency also awarded Wirt County Health Services Association Inc. with $274,432.
Based in Lincoln County, Southern West Virginia Health System also serves parts of Boone, Cabell, Kanawha, Logan and Mingo counties.
Like other providers throughout the state, CEO Lisa Leach said the organization has moved many of its services to video conferencing and telephone, to allow for social distancing during the coronavirus pandemic.
“It really gives us an opportunity to try to continue to meet the needs of our patients,” Leach said. “You know, the frail, the elderly... and obviously during these pandemic times it helps with emergencies, so that we can continue to provide care.”
Leach said the money will allow Southern West Virginia Health System to purchase 23 mobile telehealth carts, which will hold video conferencing equipment and supplies for checking vitals, and the necessary software.
There’s only so much patients can do from the comfort of their own homes, when it comes to checking their own vitals, like blood pressure.
With the video conferencing carts, which Leach called “virtual exam rooms,” patients will have access to supplies allowing them to perform these functions themselves. Patients will be able to use the carts from designated rooms at a clinic, or outside the clinic, under a tent, allowing for a face-to-face appointment with a physician, minus the physical contact.
Before now, getting paid for virtual appointments was difficult. But the U.S. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid have started reimbursing health care providers for telehealth options during this public health crisis.
Leach said this could help beyond the pandemic as well, as long as insurers continue to reimburse her organization for telehealth services.
“We have those at-risk patients,” Leach said Wednesday. “Whether it's a 90-year-old woman who needs help getting into a car coming here, or maybe it's a 65-year-old woman who just had a heart attack and has other multiple issues, it's difficult for her to come to us. So, we want to continue to use telehealth.”
But throughout the state and much of the state’s southern counties, many West Virginians still struggle with reliable broadband access. According to Leach, the FCC money doesn’t help much with that.
“For those folks, they're going to have to go to a different location,” she said. “I wish this could fix that. But we can't change broadband.”
Leach said it might be about a month and a half before they’re able to purchase the necessary supplies and begin offering the expanded telehealth services.
Emily Allen is a Report for America corps member.