During pandemic, ‘telehealth’ emerging as important lifeline to connect patients with caregivers

When the coronavirus pandemic hit the United States early this year, it sent shockwaves across our economy and pushed many of the nation’s public health systems to the brink.

Frontline health care workers, hospitals and patients suddenly were forced to confront a silent, deadly, fast-moving virus with no known cure and no vaccine. For millions of anxious Americans, the isolation measures put in place to stop the spread of the virus only exacerbated the gaps in access to the health care services they need. It was especially hard on rural and older Americans, communities of color, low-income families, and those dealing with addiction or mental health issues.

In March, when Congress passed its major bipartisan COVID-19 relief package, it included a $200 million investment in “telehealth” that has emerged as a valuable lifeline for millions of patients across the country. It has allowed those in rural, urban and tribal communities to use technology to connect to their doctors and mental health professionals from home, while still taking precautions to protect themselves and their families from the virus.

The funding, overseen by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), has allowed health providers to upgrade their telehealth infrastructure and to connect patients and doctors through tools like laptops, phones and tablets. And with broadband internet services scarce in much of rural America, it also funded wireless “hot spots” that allow patients in rural areas to gain access to remote health care services.

Unfortunately, by July, the funds were depleted after being distributed to hundreds of providers in 47 states and Washington, D.C. That’s why earlier this month, I joined with Sen. Mike Rounds (R-S.D.) to introduce the bipartisan COVID-19 Telehealth Program Extension Act to invest an additional $200 million so that many more providers can deliver telehealth services during the pandemic. Reps. Abigail Spanberger (D-Va.) and Dusty Johnson (R-S.D.) have also introduced a bipartisan House companion bill.

This new funding is especially needed now, as we enter the cold winter months with the country experiencing a significant surge in infections and deaths.

Telehealth Has Been “Transformative” During Pandemic

As I’ve tracked the success of the FCC’s telehealth program in my home state of Minnesota, providers of all sizes — from the Mayo Clinic to a small rural tribal provider — tell me how valuable it has been for their patients in overcoming barriers to getting the care they need during this pandemic.

One senior clinical psychologist said telehealth has been “transformative,” by eliminating transportation as a barrier to seeing a doctor. She told me that “among my patients, the mere thought of having to take multiple modes of transportation to access health care is enough to cease the pursuit of care.” Transportation is an especially acute problem in rural areas, where patients often have to travel long distances for services, with very few public transportation options available.

Another Minnesota provider told me that telehealth has allowed her “to reach more patients, while providing the same level of care.” Still another said their clinicians were able to use telehealth services to increase patient contacts, resulting in a 38 percent drop in their “no-show” rates for appointments over two months.

Telehealth also eases the fears of those with preexisting health problems, by allowing them to avoid the risk of visiting a hospital or clinic during the pandemic. And, for parents who lack childcare, it allows them to get health services without the burden of having to arrange for their children’s care while they see their provider in person.

Investing in Telehealth Beyond the Pandemic

As a member of the Senate Health Committee, I’ve championed telehealth because it’s proving to be an important tool in closing some of the most significant gaps in patients’ access to health care services. And it can continue to serve as a lifeline and address social determinants of health, not only during this pandemic, but into the future.

This pandemic, has already led to a dramatic increase in telehealth services for both physical and behavioral health. According to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), prior to the pandemic, approximately 13,000 fee-for-service Medicare beneficiaries received telemedicine per week. By April 2020, nearly 1.7 million beneficiaries received telehealth services.

I’m pushing the bipartisan COVID-19 Telehealth Program Extension Act because it can improve access to health services all over the country if we give providers and patients the tools they need to make that happen.

Smith represents Minnesota in the U.S. Senate.

Tags AA - healthcare Abigail Spanberger Mike Rounds
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