Never miss a story
Sign up for our free daily morning email...
...and afternoon text update
×
becomeMemberIcon

become a member

photo by Dr. Steve Dobberfuhl

Dr. Steve Dobberfuhl, an internal medicine doctor at a South Austin private practice, conducts telemedicine appointments. (Dr. Steve Dobberfuhl)

University of Texas-Austin graduate student Lexie Wille, 26, had her first appointment with her therapist via video on her laptop as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.

Her therapist offered video sessions for patients who wished to avoid coming into the office.

"I have a good sense of how we work, and I have trust in our relationship," Wille said. "I felt like I would be able to have about as close as an experience in session as I normally do in person."

She decided to try it. It also made sense because Wille's session would be covered by her insurance—something that may not have been true just weeks earlier.


As the pandemic worsens, state and federal agencies are waiving telemedicine regulations in an effort to preserve access to care while limiting community spread.

Last week, President Donald Trump expanded telemedicine coverage for Medicare patients, a benefit already offered to those covered by Medicaid and the Children's Health Insurance Program, or CHIP. That same day, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott required state-regulated insurance plans to pay the same amount for visits conducted in an office, over the phone and by video.

"Gov. Abbott very wisely temporarily expanded telemedicine to include telephone calls in the short term to meet immediate patient need while providers are making decisions about their choices of tool," said Nora Belcher, executive director of the Texas e-Health Alliance.

These changes have been critical for clinicians, who rely on this income.

"The reduction of barriers, that's everything," said Dr. Steven Dobberfuhl, a board-certified internal medicine physician who's been in practice for 20 years. "That's been a game-changer for us."

About 75% of the patients at Dr. Dobberfuhl's practice, Adult Care of Austin on Menchaca Road, are 65 years or older, a group particularly vulnerable to the new coronavirus.

Before the disease arrived in Austin, Dobberfuhl had never used telemedicine. Now he and his colleagues are working to shift as many patients as they can to virtual visits.

While Austin Adult Care has a videoconferencing service, many visits take place over the phone or via FaceTime or the Android equivalent, Google Duo, which Dr. Dobberfuhl said are easier to use than some HIPAA-compliant platforms and allowed under the new emergency rules.

"Patients love it," he said. "My response already is…'This has been great.'"

Samantha Bray, a therapist and owner of Bray Counseling in Westlake, said her four-person team has transitioned about 95% of their patients to telemedicine sessions—even before it was clear that insurers would pay for them.

"That first week I was just willing to eat [the cost] because I didn't think it was ethically okay to just tell everybody, 'No sessions,' at this time when people are in panic," Bray said.

For now, the practice is maintaining its caseload, but Bray worries about the long-term financial impact, especially as the number of inquiries she has received from prospective patients has dropped about 70%.

"I anticipate having issues with claims. I know they [insurers] agreed to this, but we'll see what happens," she said. "And I also expect that in the following weeks more clients are going to see how they're impacted financially and have to make hard choices."
Telemedicine's embrace by insurers and healthcare providers is a significant change.

"So often our public healthcare system and public safety agencies are slow to move in terms of innovation," said J.C. Adams, CEO of Cloud 9, a local telepsychiatry startup that connects patients with mental health care professionals.

Now, the city of Austin is advising residents with coronavirus symptoms to use telemedicine services.

Baylor Scott & White is screening patients for coronavirus tests with its MyBSWHealth app and has expanded its telemedicine services to include nearly all of its providers. Ascension Seton and Austin Regional Clinic already offered telemedicine services, which they continue to expand.

In the last two weeks, Cloud 9 has fielded calls from local governments, healthcare agencies and community health centers looking to introduce or expand telemedicine services.

Adams anticipates that after the pandemic telemedicine services will be more widely available.

"I think the overwhelming majority of people in and around the healthcare sector are saying that this is going to definitely be the tipping point for telemedicine," he said.

Popular

The long-awaited day is here; Austin FC takes the field with LAFC. (Austonia)

It's matchday! Austin FC—Austin's first major league sport team—kicks off its debut season in Los Angeles today after years in the making. We know how much this means to our beloved city and are taking you along with us as we journey to LA!

Austin FC writer Claire Partain and I are excited to bring you game-day coverage straight from the City of Angels. Check back here for updates, and visit our socials: @austonianews for the latest.

5 p.m: Kickoff!

It's finally here! Claire will be updating Austonia's Twitter account live. And we'll post her game recap after the game. Best of luck Verdes!

4:40 p.m: Excitement radiates back home

Watch parties are in plenty supply back home. Austonia's Laura Figi visited Circle Brewing Co. and found a crowd of excited supporters.

4:20 p.m: Austin FC supporters are in the stadium

Although the Banc of California Stadium is hosting the match at limited capacity, we see some green in the stands ahead of kickoff. Just moments away from the Austin FC's debut!

~3:20 p.m: Austin FC's team bus enters the stadium grounds

With a warm welcome from Los Verdes, Austin FC players were welcomed into the Banc of California Stadium.

~1 p.m: Los Verdes in LA

(Rigo Rodriguez/Los Verdes)

Austin FC supporters are making their presence known in LA, including the Los Verdes group.

Los Verdes members started having match-day fun around the area this morning with brunch. We'll be joining them about an hour before the game outside the stadium to share some of their excitement. We'll post immediately to Austonia's Instagram.

11:45 a.m: We landed!

View from hotel room where we're staying; the stadium digital sign can be seen in the right corner. (Sonia Garcia/Austonia)

Switching over to pacific time, we're here and it's almost like no time went by. It's 9:45 a.m. here.

We've been in contact with Los Verdes, an Austin FC supporter group, who is also here in LA counting down to kickoff.

8:20 a.m: LA bound

Like many of you, we've been looking forward to this moment for, let's just say, a very long time. Today, we woke up bright and early, headed to Austin-Bergstrom International Airport and hopped on a flight to LA.

A gloomy day in Austin with a very quiet airport, we're headed to sunny skies in California.

As we wait for the game to start at 4:30 p.m., check out Claire's preview of the game with a predicted lineup and timeline of the long journey to get here.


Ingredients:

  • 750 ml Tito's Handmade Vodka
  • 16 oz strawberries

Directions: Drop sliced strawberries into glass container filled with Tito's Handmade Vodka. Let sit in the refrigerator for 5-7 days. Once desired flavor is reached remove fruit. Enjoy!

Years before the city of Austin went Verde, thousands of the city's soccer fans formed a supporters' group—MLS in Austin—for a team that didn't even exist yet.

Now, as the team's catchphrase suggests, those same fans are #LISTOS as they prepare to see their team on national television at Austin FC's debut on Saturday.

Keep Reading Show less