Sometimes when we speak or write about telehealth developments, we get caught up in the technical and policy details and lose sight of the larger picture — that telehealth is a means to enable broader access to quality care. But that focus was never lost on Mario Gutierrez, executive director of the Center for Connected Health Policy (CCHP), who passed away last week at 68. With his passing, telehealth has lost a true champion.
I did not know Gutierrez well, but I did have the chance to interview him and watch a few of his presentations, and it was clear he was both extremely knowledgeable on passionate about the topic.
Gutierrez had been with CCHP since May 2010, first as the senior policy associate and then executive director. Established in 2008 by the California Health Care Foundation, CCHP’s mission is to integrate telehealth technologies into the healthcare system through advancing sound policy based on objective research and informed practices. In 2012, its scope grew as it became the federally designated National Telehealth Policy Resource Center. In this capacity it serves as an independent center of excellence in telehealth policy providing technical assistance to 12 federally funded telehealth regional resource centers.
When I interviewed him in 2015, Gutierrez reminded me that telehealth policy still had a long way to go across the country. With the exception of California, which passed comprehensive legislation in 2011, efforts to reform telehealth policies have been piecemeal in every state. “States are taking a cautious approach,” he said. “When we meet with legislators, we are often surprised by how little information they have about telehealth.”
Speaking in detail about California, Gutierrez said it has a framework for both public and private systems to use telehealth in a much broader way. It is still lagging in terms of reimbursement for remote patient monitoring, but with the entire Medicaid program now under managed care contracts and a greater push toward value-based care, telehealth is becoming more attractive, he said. “In a fee-for-service world, it is always going to be seen as a cost, not as a cost saver.”
A notice from CCHP about his passing said that his work and impact on telehealth did not begin with CCHP. “He brought more than 30 years of experience in California’s nonprofit health and health philanthropy sectors, including serving as a program director with The California Endowment for 12 years and as a senior program officer with The Sierra Health Foundation for six years. At his time with the California Endowment, Mario oversaw the distribution of millions of dollars to fund telehealth programs in California, including the creation of the California Telehealth Resource Center. His impact on telehealth is immeasurable,” it said.
Giving a few more specifics about his work, CCHP said he supported telehealth innovations that have helped children in remote rural communities receive life-saving treatment from world-renowned physicians. He also explored the potential of connecting health care providers in Mexico with undocumented individuals needing care in California. “Mario and his wife would often spearhead and lead medical missions to other countries to provide medical care for people in need, who may have never otherwise received vital medical treatment,” the organization said.
Gutierrez was a recipient of the prestigious 2007 Terrance Keenan National Leadership Award in Health Philanthropy. He has served on the board of directors of the California State Rural Health Association, on the board of directors of OCHIN, one of the nation’s largest and most successful nonprofit health information networks, and as chair of the Rural Policy Research Institute (RUPRI) Rural Human Services Advisory Panel.
In closing, CCHP said it not only lost its executive director, “we lost a member of our family, and the world lost a special soul.”