10/29/2009

BreakThrough: Teletherapy startup gaining some mainstream popularity, but business model is very misleading

Overview

BreakThrough connects mental health professionals with clients through secure video, phone, and web.

We have a mental health epidemic

More than 57 million Americans – one in four adults – have a diagnosed mental illness. Tens of millions more struggle with stress and relationship issues. Institutions such as hospitals, prisons, schools, companies, health plans, and veterans centers are overcrowded with patients needing help, but growing costs and shrinking budgets are decimating quality of care.

Even though seventy to eighty percent of patients with mental illness improve with treatment, patients remain woefully underserved. Two–thirds of Americans with a mental illness do not receive treatment due to cost, stigma, inconvenience, and low access, particularly in rural areas. This is despite Americans spending $121 billion on mental health and substance abuse treatment.

The solution of telemedicine

Telepsychiatry and teletherapy – mental health services delivered through secure video, phone, and web – have emerged as effective, affordable, convenient, and safe methods of treating stress and mental illness. Telemedicine has several substantial benefits:

Effectiveness:

over fifteen years of research confirm that telemedicine is as effective as in–person treatment. This is particularly true in psychiatry and clinical psychology where much of the treatment is doctor–patient communication. Click here for a list of research studies on the effectiveness of telemedicine.

Convenience:

fifty percent of therapy clients drop out after a few sessions, but research shows teletherapy can boost retention to over ninety percent. Because clients can hold sessions anywhere with phone or internet access, they are much more likely to go and stay in treatment. BreakThrough supports sessions via video, phone, email, and live chat.

Affordability:

telemedicine sessions can cost ten to fifty percent less due to reduced overhead, travel time, and staffing needs. On BreakThrough, providers set rates that are almost always more affordable than in–office visits.

Access:

research shows the fit between clients and mental health providers is essential to positive outcomes. Most people will not travel to a provider beyond fifty miles, but telemedicine lets clients work with the best licensed provider regardless of location. BreakThrough clients can find providers on a wide variety of criteria, including price, reputation, location, gender, experience, credentials, and more.

Confidentiality:

eighty percent of therapy clients worry about the stigma of treatment. To protect clients, BreakThrough requires minimal information, enabling treatment with a level of discreteness and security not possible with in–person treatment.

Peer support:

the support of friends, family, and other patients is essential to long–term recovery. BreakThrough offers forums, group sessions, and seminars to enable peers to support each other no matter where they live.

Telemedicine is legal and expanding

Telepsychiatry and teletherapy are legal and regulated by state–specific guidelines. Government and licensing boards are also rapidly evolving legislation to expand telemedicine access.

To protect providers and meet the highest levels of regulatory compliance, we currently allow providers to see clients only in states where the provider is licensed. Providers can typically apply for licensure in multiple states, either directly through state licensing boards or third–party services that streamline the application process.

Telemedicine is reimburseable

Since 2004, Medicare and the AMA have issued CPT codes to identify and reimburse telepsychiatry and teletherapy services. A list of eligible services and codes include:

  • Individual psychotherapy: CPT 90804 – 90809
  • Consultations: CPT 99241 – 99255
  • Office or other outpatient visits: CPT 99201 – 99215
  • Pharmacologic management: CPT 90862
  • Psychiatric diagnostic interview examination:CPT 90801
  • Neurobehavioral status examination: CPT 96116

CPT code descriptions can be found on the American Medical Association's CPT directory. The modifier GT may be necessary to identify that services were delivered via telemedicine. For Medicare reimbursement, clients generally must receive treatment at an eligible originating site, such as a doctor's office, hospital, nursing facility, mental health clinic, or similar facility. Private payers often do not have the same locality restrictions. More details on reimbursement are available through the American Telemedicine Association.

The premise underlying the business model for BreakThrough may well be sound, particularly the evidence presented supporting the positive impact of teletherapy on psychiatric patient outcomes. However, the increase in quality of treatment via telemedicine is irrelevant without a method for sustaining the provision of treatment through reimbursement of attending psychiatrists.

The assertion that "Telemedicine is reimbursable" made in the final section above, while accurate technically, is misleading in that eligibility to be reimbursed and actually recouping fees for services provided are two entirely different issues. The CPT codes provided by the BreakThrough founders are a distraction from the real challenge of processing and collecting payment, which is overcoming the fact that CPT codes are very often (more often than not) ignored because of the GT modifier and the advanced standards of practice that must be met to be eligible under Medicare reimbursement policy.

Medicare mandates clearly that telemedicine services are only eligible for reimbursement when there is a two-way video transmission that allows doctor and patient to each see the other. Any health professional will tell you that private insurers will always follow Medicare's guidance when it comes to establishing standards of eligibility for reimbursement.

This is going to create a major obstacle for the well intentioned and otherwise exciting startup to achieve widespread adoption amongst mental health providers, as they are not likely to adopt therapeutic practices without demonstrable evidence that reimbursement above a significant percentage of total consults is achievable. I wish the BreakThrough team the best of luck!!

Posted via web from Connected Care Solutions

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