A network of not-for-profit social agencies in Maine is beginning to offer telepsychiatry services to patients in the state's rural areas, where there is a shortage of psychiatrists, the Portland Press Herald reports. The Maine Telepsychiatry Initiative uses high-speed video links to support real-time consultations between patients and off-site psychiatrists, cutting wait times for appointments from the current two months to about one week.
The program is using $135,000 in initial funding from the Maine Health Access Foundation to operate until January, establish four new telepsychiatry sites and hire a coordinator. The long-term success of the program, however, will depend on receiving reimbursement from government and private insurers.
Thus far, the state has approved mental health service Sweetser and social service provider Ingraham to provide telepsychiatry and receive reimbursement for Medicaid patients. Other providers have applications pending or plan to apply. Anthem Blue Cross Blue Shield of Maine, the state's largest private health plan, says it is considering whether to begin reimbursing for telemedicine services.
The initiative also plans to use the more than 200 telemedicine sites at hospitals, clinics and social service centers with equipment purchased with federal grants in the past 10 years.
Currently patients can choose from four physicians, and the program can only provide hourlong, one-time consultations. Sweetser's Dr. Ed Pontius, the program's director and one of the four doctors, said it is important to involve patients' primary care physicians, since they have a relationship with patients and can do things a remote psychiatrists cannot, such as write prescriptions in person.
Pontius said the program could also be helpful for the 40,000 children in Maine suffering from behavioral and emotional problems. There are only about 40 child psychiatrists in the state available to treat them, he said (Huang, Portland Press Herald, 7/18).