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Shaheen takes virtual connected care tour

LEBANON, N.H. (WCAX) - The Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center has seen a dramatic increase in telehealth visits over the last several months. New emergency rules from the federal government helped pay for it. But now, medical center staffers are pushing to make those rules permanent.

When the pandemic first hit, Dartmouth-Hitchcock was doing about 10 telehealth visits a day. Within 10 days that number jumped to 2,500. Thursday, New Hampshire Sen. Jeanne Shaheen took a virtual tour of the facility to learn more about what the medical center needs from the federal government.

Wearing a mask alongside senior DHMC staff, Shaheen got an inside look at the connected care center which has been very busy lately. The center has been operational since 2012 but only recently have telehealth visits with elderly patients in their homes been reimbursed by Medicare.

"There was some irony there because sometimes patients with Medicare are challenged even to get to their local facility never mind in our rural region to travel far," said Dr. Kevin Curtis with Connected Care.

Another emergency waiver enacted during the pandemic covered audio-only visits. DHMC's president and CEO says a phone call with a doctor can make a big difference.

"Nobody historically paid for a telephone visit. But often, you can actually make a pretty good assessment about how somebody is doing over a telephone," Dr. Joanne Conroy said.

Like hospitals across the region, DHMC is going through trying financial times. Revenues have dropped drastically and costs have gone up- like $15 million on PPE alone. Some $89 million in CARES Act funds and an additional $493 million in advance Medicare payments have helped keep the light on.

"It is really a little bit absurd that we are cheering that we lost less than $100 million," Conroy said.

Conroy says additional federal funding along with consistency when it comes to Medicare reimbursement payments is crucial for the nonprofit's bottom line.

"I think the data that is collected is a very good news story that will help us make the case that this something we should make permanent," said Shaheen, D-New Hampshire.

Though, admittedly, as the focus shifts to telehealth, hospital officials say something will remain the same.

"There is certainly and will always be a very important place for in-person care," Curtis said.

Shaheen says she is hopeful there is bipartisan support around issues involving telehealth. Hospital officials say looking forward financially, 2021 is expected to be another very difficult year.