Prioritizing access to care: Keeping telehealth options for all Americans
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As the COVID-19 pandemic has swept across the nation, Americans have patiently waited—confined to our homes, with masks in hand—as businesses closed and schooling moved online. We’ve done this all with a singular goal: to reduce the spread of the virus.

Preventing spread is essential to protecting the most vulnerable: the elderly, the immunocompromised, and those with underlying conditions or limited access to health care. Slowing the spread also ensures our hospitals and health care systems are not overwhelmed with COVID-19 patients.

As part of this effort, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services greatly expanded access to telehealth services. Through waivers, loosened regulations, and new federal reimbursements, CMS enabled Americans to access health care from the comfort and safety of their own homes. As Congress considers additional coronavirus relief legislation, we must include measures to support a responsible, permanent expansion of telehealth.

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The current, temporary expansion of telehealth services was set up under an extreme, urgent situation, and is not without fault. I previously introduced legislation with my Democratic friend, Rep. Cindy AxneCindy AxneHouse passes bill to avert shutdown House moves toward spending vote after bipartisan talks House Democrats mull delay on spending bill vote MORE of Iowa, to correct some of the resulting oversights.

On top of these remedies, Congress must also ensure that any effort toward telehealth permanence considers barriers to access, such as the lack of rural broadband and infrastructure needed to connect to telehealth services in the first place. No American should be left behind.

That is why I authored the KEEP Telehealth Options Act. This legislation would require the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to perform a full accounting of its expanded telehealth permissions and report to Congress on the uptake of these services. The report must include demographic data so we can ensure the most vulnerable Americans are supported, including rural, minority, low-income, and elderly populations. The bill would also require the U.S. Government Accountability Office to survey barriers to access and make recommendations on improvements to Congress.

Access to care for all Americans is of the utmost importance – before, during, and after the current pandemic. Americans should not be shut out of care simply because there are no doctors available, no nurses nearby due to a provider shortage, no hospitals in their communities, or simply out fear of exposure to disease, keeping patients from seeking treatment. For so many Americans, including some of the Ohioans I represent, care is simply not readily affordable or available.

This pandemic has exacerbated this challenge. It underscores problems for those who are unable or unwilling to leave the safety of their homes. It also compounds issues for providers who were under-supported and overextended even before the public health emergency began.

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Thankfully, there is a remedy: telehealth helps prevent the spread of coronavirus by reducing person-to-person interactions while alleviating health system exhaustion. CMS has already taken advantage of telehealth options for use during this public health crisis. While telehealth is not a full replacement for in-person visits, it presents a legitimate, safe, and cost-effective option for many patients’ needs.

Telehealth has enabled patients to connect with their doctors and nurses from their own laptops, tablets, and cell phones. This emerging resource has proven to be a valuable access point to care. Not only does telehealth provide an additional option for patients, it is well-used and even preferred by many.

Providers across Ohio with whom I’ve spoken have increasingly relied on telehealth for a variety of purposes, including initial conversations with patients to establish whether an in-person visit is required, follow-up visits, and many other services. In my district, one community health center has employed telehealth to such great extent that it estimates nearly 95 percent of behavioral services have moved to telehealth, combined with approximately 65 percent of medical services during the height of the stay-at-home orders. Their patients clearly prefer utilizing this option.

Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Columbus, Ohio, has relied heavily on telehealth services to preserve the safety of their high-risk patients. In a recent video call with Nationwide Children’s, I learned about the clinical benefits telehealth can provide, particularly for providers working with children who have mental and behavioral health needs, as patient care in these cases benefits from a comfortable home environment. Through conversations with such providers and patients, I’ve come to understand how well telehealth has become integrated in our nation’s health care system in recent months, and the potential it holds beyond this pandemic.

I am proud to work in a bipartisan way to ensure telehealth services remain available beyond the pandemic, and I thank my partners in this effort: Rep. Axne of Iowa and Sen. Deb FischerDebra (Deb) Strobel FischerHillicon Valley: Election officials prepare for new Russian interference battle | 'Markeyverse' of online fans helps take down a Kennedy | GOP senators unveil bill to update tech liability protections Google, Apple, eBay to meet virtually with lawmakers for tech group's annual fly-in Congress botched the CFPB's leadership — here's how to fix it MORE of Nebraska. I am confident my colleagues in Congress will agree that we must keep telehealth options viable for all Americans.

Mr. Balderson represents Ohio’s 12th District and is the co-chair of the bipartisan Pandemic Preparedness Caucus. He serves on the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee, the House Small Business Committee, and the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.