Uncharted Territory: Telehealth showing great convenience but many headaches as well

ATLANTA — At some time or another we're going to have to see our doctors without physically going to see them.

Telehealth is becoming a necessity for so many types of health care, but Channel 2 investigative reporter Nicole Carr found navigating it isn’t easy for every doctor or patient.

She spoke with patients who are still trying to adjust to this new reality.

In a lot of ways, people have found the process quick and easy especially when it comes to prescription refills and simple consultations.

But with so many practices switching over to telehealth at one time, there’s been a lot to figure out when it comes to insurance companies, accessibility and deregulations.

“I understand it’s necessary with what’s happening, but it’s still disconcerting with me and my health,” cardiology patient Tunisia Pullins said.

Pullins is just coming off a heart monitor and is concerned about how effective her follow-up appointment will be on the data.

“You can’t listen to me breathe. You can’t listen to my heartbeat. You can’t do my blood work. It’s just a conversation,” Pullins said.


“And a best guess? An educated guess?” Carr asked Pullins.

“Exactly,” Pullins said.

For David Dennis Jr. it’s more about making sure his dietitian’s practice is able to function when this all over.

“The appointment was really to check in on following the diet or going to the gym and then you do this body weight thing at the GNC. All these places are closed and so there’s nothing really for us to follow up on,” Dennis said. “During this time, they need this for their livelihood.”

While the telemedicine option is welcome, there’s a still a game of figuring out how this all works for not only patients, but the providers amid the coronavirus pandemic.

“One of the things the government did to lighten the load on providers is the whole HIPAA compliance piece. Until now, before the crisis, providers had to make sure that whatever means they used to communicate with patients was HIPAA-complaint,” said John Miller, CEO of Sterling Seacrest Partners, an Atlanta risk management group that writes insurance for health providers.

This was earlier this month and two weeks after the government addressed HIPPA concerns.

“Given the crisis, we’re going to basically look the other way during the period of the crisis,” Miller said. “The HIPAA rules still apply, we’re basically going to avoid any enforcement actions during this crisis, so that’s been a big boom for the providers.”

This is leaving providers to have to come up with ways to ensure personal information isn’t compromised through portals that have already been bombed, like Zoom. There’s a HIPAA-compliant version that physicians should purchase licenses for, according to providers who spoke with Channel 2 Action News.

Across the country, there are other considerations.

“Providers need to be really careful about making sure that not only are they licensed in the state from which they're broadcasting, but also that they’re licensed in the state that the patient is in at the time that care is being rendered,” Miller told Carr.

That measure varies from state-to-state. But here in Georgia, doctors have found welcome relief.

About 50% of patients out of Atlanta’s Shepherd Center live outside of Georgia. Regulations had presented a roadblock for the center to launch telehealth before the pandemic.

“So, we’d have to figure out where the patient was during that interaction. And if they were outside of Georgia, I’m not licensed in another state, so we were looking at having to license our providers in multiple states so that we could reach out to them,” said Dr. Angela Beninga, chief medical informatics officer and physiatrist at the Shepherd Center.

“Now with the deregulation with the pandemic we can cross into any state line as far as delivering care. That was a game changer for us. It really helped.

And while interaction with Shepherd Center patients and their type of care have been working well, it’s caused care and financial concerns for other practices.

“I think one of our main hurdles right now is you know-unfortunately right now some of our more severe kids can’t attend to a television screen. You know we try to limit screen time and here we are introducing screen time and it usually overstimulates children, said occupational therapist, Meghan Panagopoulos.

“It hasn’t been figured out yet and now that everyone’s kind of been thrown into this, it’s just been a mess,” said Chris Panagopoulos, Meghan’s husband and owner of Kidz Therapy Networks, a Forsyth County-based occupational therapy practice for special needs children.

He told Carr that billing has become a nightmare for this.

“What we’ve come around is you know Georgia has put some mandates on telehealth that you should pay for it and, but what we’ve come across is these parents have some insurance policies with corporate offices in New Jersey, and now we have to follow New Jersey’s mandates. Now how do we find that out

Panagopoulos told Carr that his company is now servicing hundreds through telehealth and questions about documenting and verifying virtual billable hours.

“We are trying to navigate this at a million miles per hour and we can’t get any answers and it’s going to come to a grinding halt here if we can’t get some of those funds in,” Panagopoulos said.

Because payroll for their therapists is the first priority, Panagopoulos has already told their landlord that the next rent payment on their facility will be late.