Coronavirus Grant Gives Massachusetts FQHCs A Chance To Embrace Telehealth


By Eric Wicklund

A network of Massachusetts-based federally qualified health centers is using a million-dollar grant to expand its telehealth programmes – not only to meet the challenges of the Coronavirus pandemic but to improve care management when the emergency is over.

Community Care Cooperative (C3), an accountable care organization comprising 19 FQHCs, is getting US$1.026 million from the McGovern Foundation to improve its connected health platform, which up until now had been focused on offering some behavioral health services.

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The money comes at a vital time for C3, which is facing the same issues that FQHCs and RHCs across the country are facing: lack of support for establishing a telemedicine blueprint to meet the needs of stressed care providers and a growing underserved patient population. These clinics have traditionally been restricted by the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services in using telehealth, though CMS has loosened the reins during the current emergency.

“We’ve been facing an enormous amount of stress recently from lots of different angles,” says  C3’s president and CEO, Christina Severin. “People (need to) get care in the safest possible way right now, and this will help us.”

“This is a super interesting time for health centers,” adds Severin, whose ACO is partnering with the Massachusetts League of Health Centers to extend the telehealth network to all FQHCs in the Commonwealth. The COVID-19 crisis has pushed telehealth to the forefront, giving FQHCs an opportunity not only to facilitate treatment for patients infected by the virus but also map out new programs and services for the future.

“While we are doing telehealth out of necessity, patients are also telling us that they really like this option, especially when they don’t feel well and don’t have to come in if it’s not necessary,”  C3’s Chief Medical Officer and a practicing clinician at DotHouse Health, Julita Mir said in a press release announcing the grant award. “It also helps keep health care workers safe at this difficult time and in the longer-term and should reduce burnout and improve retention in primary care.” 

The grant will go towards the purchase of hardware, software and IT services, giving the FQHCs a platform to triage patients in other locations and the ability for staff – doctors, nurses, nurse practitioners and physician assistants – to work from home as well.

Severin says the money will go into building out a telehealth platform that, for now, handles primary and behavioral care services for the region’s Medicaid population. Beyond that, the virtual care platform could be used to facilitate population health programs, chronic care management, eConsults and even specialty services like teledentistry, as well as mHealth programmes that take advantage of smart devices in the home.

“People talk all the time about patient-centric care,” she notes. “This is it. This is what they need and are asking for. We need to equip them with the tools they need” for better health.

With that in mind, Severin says C3 will be gathering lots of data in the coming weeks. The network will want to build its argument for long-term telehealth to counter the short-term goals of emergency legislation.

“We … want to do it in a way that is sustainable,” Severin says. “We need to be in a position where there is a long-term strategy for telehealth.”

The grant gives the network a financial boost that health clinics have struggled to find, she adds, as well as an opportunity to get a foot in the door. They’ll be measuring patient satisfaction, noting the savings incurred by patients in time, travel and work and school commitments, charting clinical outcomes and looking at how telehealth improves workflows and reduces stress on providers.

“We have this incredibly rich community of FQHCs,” she says “We will have priceless lessons learned from (these new telehealth programmes) that will go so, so far in informing (state and federal officials) that there is a lot of receptiveness to telehealth.”

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