To help its franchise owners diversify revenue, expand their client base and fill gaps within the U.S. health care system, Cincinnati-based FirstLight Home Care has partnered with HNC Virtual Solutions, a global telemedicine software company.
While the HNC Virtual Solutions partnership is exclusive to FirstLight — one of the largest non-medical home care franchisers in the nation — it serves as yet another indicator of telemedicine and telehealth’s rising roles in the industry overall. Telemedicine is typically defined as the clinical application of technology, in particular, while telehealth is more generally seen as consumer-facing tools that enhance care delivery or education.
FirstLight formally announced the partnership in February. But before that, co-founder and CEO Jeff Bevis hinted at the news during an appearance on Home Health Care News’ podcast, Disrupt.
Through the partnership, FirstLight will begin offering a new service line branded as FirstLight Health Care Solutions.
“We see telehealth being an important part of our services moving forward and expanding our home care offering,” Bevis recently told HHCN following the partnership announcement. “We think that’s going to be a wave or direction of the future within the home care industry, too. I don’t see many other companies doing this yet today.”
FirstLight’s franchise network currently serves more than 5,000 clients across nearly three dozen states. The franchiser expects the HNC Virtual Solutions-powered telehealth line to be offered across 100 of its markets over the next 12 months, according to Bevis.
“It is expanding our FirstLight service lines with additional services such as nursing assessments, disease-specific services, helping people with COPD, diabetes or kidney dialysis,” he said. “But we won’t take our eye off the ball when it comes to FirstLight Home Care and our core foundation — that will not change.”
HNC Virtual Solutions is a subsidiary of J&B Medical, a family-owned medical and speciality distribution company based in Michigan.
For J&B Medical, the partnership with FirstLight will ramp up HNC Virtual Solution’s growth potential by giving it access to the franchiser’s several thousand clients, Dr. Stephen Shaya, managing director for J&B Medical, told HHCN.
“FirstLight is one of the largest providers of non-medical and medical care in the United States — and growing,” Shaya, a family practice physician by trade whose mother and father jointly own J&B Medical, said. “Whether it’s telemedicine, telehealth, video conferencing, mobile apps, sensors, we’re all going to be in a connected health environment. FirstLight has a lot of connectivity to folks, being in over 30 states.”
FirstLight clients who need telemedicine or telehealth services will be able to opt into the new program for an additional cost, which will vary depending on which and how many technology components are used. Clients can themselves choose to use FirstLight Health Care Solutions, or services can be driven by family members or physicians, according to Bevis.
The franchiser will pay HNC Virtual Solutions a monthly licensing fee to use its tech tools.
Technology offered through the program, for example, will include a tablet synched up with blood pressure cuffs, scales and other medical devices, Shaya said. In general, the equipment and plans for using it will be disease-specific, with health information being shared with authorized users.
“FirstLight is working day in and day out with patients, providers and caregivers,” Shaya said. “By leveraging technology, by leveraging innovation, what we’re going to be able to do is fill in a lot of the gaps in the continuum of care.”
The exclusive arrangement between FirstLight and HNC Virtual Solutions is for six months.
The main goals of FirstLight Health Care Solutions are to achieve a decrease in hospital readmissions for clients, reduce health care costs, increase family engagement and allow older adults to independently age in place.
“This partnership opens up new avenues of care that will allow us to add to our already excellent caregiving services,” Bevis said. “Our partnership with [HNC Virtual Solutions] is going to allow us to connect patients to clinicians using remote patient monitoring, which studies have shown can lead to enhanced quality of life, fewer hospital visits and more involvement from family members.”
Establishing a relationship between HNC Virtual Solutions and FirstLight also positions J&B Medical to do more business with the franchiser down the road.
“They have a whole medical equipment catalog line and health products they offer that we see benefit from and they could be selling through our entire network on a wholesale basis,” Bevis said. “That’s another financial benefit to them.”
Telehealth and the home
The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) in October outlined a proposal to expand telehealth benefits via Medicare Advantage (MA).
The overarching idea of the proposal is to make it easier for beneficiaries to access telehealth services from home rather than a health care facility, which is more commonly the case.
Under the proposed rule, which would take effect in calendar year 2020, MA plans could cover telehealth services for both rural and urban enrollees, as well as in-home virtual medicine services, without a requirement for the patient to go to a health care facility.
Timing wise, CMS’s attempt to allow for more telehealth services under MA comes as policymakers continue to create new flexibilities for non-medical home care.
While home health providers have largely touted the business upside of telehealth under the MA program, recent moves could pave the way for new revenue streams for FirstLight and other home care players.
“The incentives are starting to align with the technology and innovation,” Shaya said. “I think there’s a realization that we’re going to have 8 million new Medicaid beneficiaries by 2026, 21 million new Medicare beneficiaries. The future of health care isn’t bricks and mortar — it’s going to be in the home.”
Additionally, in December, CMS released new rules overhauling Medicare’s accountable care organizations program. Among the changes, the new policies offered more regulatory flexibility, including for providing telehealth to people in their homes.
As of 2016, only 15% of physicians worked in practices that used telemedicine to interact with patients, according to a recent Business Insider Intelligence report.
“There’s obviously still some regulatory and reimbursement hurdles to overcome, but there’s a lot of momentum,” Shaya said.