Political parties should come together to expand telehealth access

During the COVID-19 pandemic, health care providers and lawmakers have worked diligently to bring innovative technologies and treatments to the front lines in the fight against the virus. 

One of those critical tools has been telehealth, which allows patients to access their preferred physicians from the safety and comfort of their own homes, often using video conferencing, email, and store-and-forward technology.

This technology has not only kept Americans safer by allowing them to receive medical care remotely, it has also been proven to dramatically reduce the cost of health care. That’s why, despite our ideological differences on health care policy issues, my organization has come together with the Progressive Policy Institute to urge state and federal policymakers to support the regulatory reforms that will expand telemedicine access.

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If we can partner on this nonpartisan issue, there should be nothing preventing lawmakers around the nation from doing the same.

Since the pandemic hit American shores, the popularity of telehealth has exploded. Nearly one in two consumers nationally has used telehealth to replace a cancelled in-person appointment.

In April of this year, just 32 percent of Americans had ever used telehealth. Less than a month later, that number jumped to 44 percent.

Furthermore, a majority believe they will continue to use telehealth when the pandemic ends. 

These facts aren’t surprising. Telehealth offers patients quality care on par or better than in-person appointments. Using remote care, patients can eliminate the risk of infection from those lengthy waiting-room visits. 

Additionally, doctors can help low-risk patients recover at home, while encouraging patients in need of more advanced care to visit the hospital. This is a strategy that, according to the CDC, will save critical hospital resources.

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Though telemedicine was made more available to patients at the outset of the pandemic’s outbreak in America, it is a service that has been around for decades — but was wrapped up in bureaucratic red tape at the state and federal levels.

This crisis has exposed a tragic reality: America’s health care system often stands in the way of doctors, nurses, and medical researchers helping people. Happily, some of those barriers were removed, at least on a temporary basis.

As a result, the use of the service has grown more in the past five months than in the preceding 25 years. When lawmakers at the federal and state levels decided to remove barriers to the service, more patients were able to access it.

Many of these reforms were enacted at the federal level. While Medicare once saddled the use of telehealth with burdensome and unnecessary restrictions — such as those dictating when doctors can consult with patients, which types of telehealth qualify for reimbursement, and those that prevent access to remote care across state lines — the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services recently suspended many of its regulations on the service.

One of the changes made by CMS allows home health agencies to connect Medicare patients and clinicians using remote patient monitoring, phone calls, two-way audio-video, and similar technologies. The agency also made these reforms permanent, a decision that will help countless patients after the pandemic.

Federal reform hasn’t stopped there. The Cares Act allows patients to receive first-dollar coverage of telehealth services through their HSAs through the end of 2021. This reform will help patients access telehealth using the money they’ve earned and saved — without unnecessary government barriers. 

Telehealth reform is also taking place at the state level. When the pandemic reached our shores, every state eased at least some restrictions on telehealth. Forty-eight of them have temporarily reduced some or all of their licensing requirements for out-of-state doctors.

Together these reforms have helped countless patients during the COVID-19 crisis. When the pandemic ends, lawmakers must make these reforms permanent so we are better prepared to deal with whatever public health challenges may lie ahead.

This isn’t a partisan issue. The COVID-19 pandemic has changed the way Americans view health care. We’ve found that telehealth works and that people truly desire remote health care services.

Patients and doctors have found a new way forward on health care that meets their needs. Regulators should not stand in the way.

Dean Clancy is senior health policy fellow at Americans for Prosperity.