Expanding access to telehealth is a lifeline for vulnerable patients

Sally C. Pipes

  • Sally C. Pipes is President, CEO and Thomas W. Smith Fellow in Health Care Policy at the Pacific Research Institute. His latest book is “False Premise, False Promise: The Disastrous Reality of Medicare for All” (Encounter 2020). Follow her on Twitter @sallypipes.

It’s hard to find a silver lining in a pandemic. But COVID-19 has convinced medical and political institutions, perhaps unwittingly, that high-quality care can be delivered from a distance. The telehealth revolution is upon us.

Lawmakers have waived many obscure and outdated regulations governing the use of telemedicine to make service more accessible to everyday patients. Onerous restrictions that required patients to receive telehealth care at medical facilities and barred doctors from making appointments across state lines were as absurd before the pandemic as they are now.

Tennessee Governor Bill Lee and dozens of community leaders joined Comcast for a statewide virtual summit in December 2020 to highlight the critical need to connect more seniors to the internet and telehealth resources, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic.

It’s time to make this relaxed approach to telehealth permanent.

Even though face-to-face appointments have come back to life, digital medicine is set to grow rapidly. On-demand telehealth companies have raised $ 3.4 billion in funding through the third quarter of 2021.

This is because patients really love telehealth. A Morning Consult poll conducted in October found that about nine in ten telehealth users were satisfied with the way of care. An August survey that heavily sampled seniors and rural Americans also reported a similar satisfaction rate with telehealth.

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This makes sense, given that elderly and rural patients often have difficulty getting to a doctor’s office.

Sally Pipes

For rural patients, telehealth was particularly vital as a preventive care tool. One in seven rural respondents said they would have given up seeking treatment altogether if telemedicine had not been available.

Telehealth is also a lot. The typical cost of a telehealth visit for a respiratory infection is only $ 79, compared to $ 1,734 for emergency room treatment.

Unfortunately, many of the exemptions that allowed relatively open access to telehealth are expiring or have already expired. According to the Federation of State Medical Boards, only 18 states have implemented waivers amending telehealth requirements in response to COVID-19.

Congress has expressed an interest in making telehealth a more permanent feature of our health care system.

In June, Representative Debbie Dingell, D-Mich., And Representative Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., Introduced legislation that would preserve many of the crucial changes made during the pandemic for Medicare beneficiaries, removing geographic restrictions and ensuring at all times that qualified people in health centers and clinics can provide telehealth services to patients at home.

And just recently, a bipartisan group of senators introduced legislation that would permanently extend Medicare reimbursement eligibility for telehealth services to providers such as occupational therapists, audiologists, and physiotherapists. Another recent bipartisan bill introduced in the House seeks to increase access to telehealth for Medicare, Medicaid and Children’s Health Insurance program patients.

Despite all the pandemic pain that we have endured, it is time to lock in the collateral benefits that we have also felt by providing more and better telehealth options to patients.

Sally C. Pipes is President, CEO and Thomas W. Smith Fellow in Health Care Policy at the Pacific Research Institute. His latest book is “False Premise, False Promise: The Disastrous Reality of Medicare for All” (Encounter 2020). Follow her on twitter @sallypipes.

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