Sen. Manchin paves way for a telehealth revolution
When COVID-19 arrived in the United States, the Trump administration temporarily waived numerous government barriers to allow health care workers to deliver remote care through telehealth. These changes allowed providers to deliver life-saving care and slow the spread of the virus.
They also allowed patients, like Bob Buckles from Fort Myers, Fla., to continue receiving the care they needed from the comfort and safety of their own homes. “Not having to go to the doctor’s office [and] sit in the waiting room was a big plus,” Buckles said.
Now, policymakers are taking crucial steps to ensure patients can access remote care on a long-term basis.
On Wednesday, Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.V.) and a bipartisan group of senators introduced the Protecting Rural Telehealth Access Act to permanently expand patient access to telehealth. The measure would authorize health providers to deliver virtual care to Medicare enrollees located in any ZIP code in the country. It also would allow patients to receive telehealth care from the comfort of their home.
Manchin’s legislation, like similar reforms introduced by Sens. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii), Roger Wicker (R-Miss.), and Tim Scott (R-S.C.), would ensure America’s health care workers can continue delivering high-quality care long after this pandemic ends.
The bill also would authorize facilities such as critical access hospitals and rural health centers to deliver virtual care. And it would free health care workers to consult their patients through simple telephone calls.
Prior to the pandemic, the federal government imposed enormous obstacles on patients seeking to virtually connect with their health care provider. Federal law prohibited physicians and nurses from delivering telehealth to Medicare enrollees who lived in urban and suburban communities. In addition, the federal government barred patients from communicating with their doctor at home. As a result of these and many other barriers, seniors couldn’t access essential health services via telehealth.
Fortunately, Congress and the Trump administration lifted these harmful restrictions to combat COVID-19. Under the CARES Act, health officials waived these federal barriers to allow more patients to safely receive high-quality care at home.
These reforms freed health care workers to deliver exponentially more telehealth to patients in need. Prior to COVID-19, only 134,000 Medicare enrollees received virtual care in 2019. After these reforms took effect, the number of enrollees receiving telehealth increased to 10.1 million, a 7,500 percent increase in 2020.
This dramatic telehealth expansion provided patients lifesaving care throughout the crisis. Physicians are using live-video apps to consult with and screen patients who experience COVID-19 symptoms. Intensive care teams are using telehealth to virtually assist remote emergency rooms in treating infected patients. In addition, hospitals are utilizing telehealth to remotely monitor patients’ conditions when they return home after they are discharged.
Telehealth also significantly slowed the spread of the virus. Because health care workers come into frequent contact with infected patients, non-infected patients face greater risk visiting a hospital or their primary care doctor. Thankfully, telehealth allowed providers to safely consult with, care, and monitor patients from a distance.
Unfortunately, all of these important reforms are limited to the COVID-19 public health emergency. As soon as federal officials declare the COVID-19 crisis over, these harmful telehealth barriers will resume and patients will lose access to critical virtual care.
Manchin’s legislation would ensure America’s health care workers can continue delivering high-quality care long after this pandemic ends.
One out of four Medicare recipients live in rural communities that face a severe shortage of primary care. Video and audio technologies would allow physicians and nurses to deliver routine consultations for patients who lack convenient access to in-person care.
Furthermore, millions of Americans are expected to retire in the coming years and require ongoing support for many chronic illnesses. New telehealth technologies like remote patient monitoring will allow doctors and hospitals to consistently monitor these complex conditions and connect these patients with top specialists. This is part of how we can give patients a personal health care option that expands access to the quality care they deserve.
For years, telehealth remained at the margins of America’s health care system because of outdated and harmful government barriers. However, health professionals proved throughout the pandemic this technology saves lives. Manchin’s proposal would ensure Americans can access these important services on a permanent basis.
Charlie Katebi is a health policy analyst at Americans for Prosperity.