Congress cannot sacrifice patient health and access to medical care

Congress cannot sacrifice patient health and access to medical care
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“Thank you for calling to check on me, but I only have 10 minutes left on my phone this month. I want to save them. Can I keep my appointment and come in?” Our hearts broke as our patient shared these words. By calling to care for her remotely during the pandemic, we unknowingly forced a choice between her connection with the world and potential exposure to the coronavirus. No one should have to face that.

The health of our country depends on swift action by Congress to ensure that Americans urged to stay home can do so. Households that otherwise cannot afford it must receive access to broadband internet and unlimited telephone use. The Senate will soon consider another stimulus package, and it must include an emergency communications benefit.

Since 1985, the federal government has assisted low income consumers with affordable telephone service. The Lifeline Program was expanded to include wireless and broadband internet service. This saves lives, keeping nearly 10 million older Americans, veterans, families, and other consumers connected with schools, employers, and health care providers.

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With hospitals once again reaching capacity in many states, connecting remotely with health care is not a matter of convenience or preference. It is now a matter of public safety. For telemedicine to work, patients need affordable access to voice and broadband service. Older Americans and individuals with chronic health conditions especially need such voice and broadband service to take advantage of telemedicine from the safety of their homes. Voice and broadband service is critical during the pandemic for struggling individuals to access lifesaving mental health care.

The Senate should offer low income households a $50 monthly benefit to obtain faster speed broadband and unlimited talk and text for the duration of the coronavirus crisis. Consistent with the actions taken after Hurricane Katrina, these proposed emergency benefits are limited to the duration of this crisis and address the cost barrier. Using the existing infrastructure of the Lifeline Program means it will comply with its strict measures.

The Federal Communications Commission moved to recruit hundreds of companies, including leading internet service providers, to commit to a promise to keep Americans connected. But the pledge has expired and, even under the pledge, many companies did not offer unlimited free talk and text to households with existing low income plans. An appropriation from Congress is necessary to fully fund the needs of low income workers and the newly unemployed workers in this national emergency.

Many Americans find it difficult to stay at home as directed, and it is nearly impossible for those without voice and internet coverage. As hospitals in southern and western states near capacity, with infection rates doubling in Tennessee, the need for enhanced voice and broadband service is as important now as it was during the early days of the pandemic.

If low income workers, whose wages are the first to be cut and who often lack adequate health insurance, do not have a way to communicate with doctors while at home, they will stay home and suffer the consequences without access to health care for fear of contracting the coronavirus, or they will endanger themselves and others in order to seek assistance. No one should have to make such a choice in these circumstances.

To get the country back on the road to economic vitality, we must ensure that everyone can afford broadband service at home to keep people safe even as states reopen. Congress is about to decide on another stimulus package. It must heed this call to save the lives of the most vulnerable among us and ensure that life goes on as much as possible online.

Eboni Winford is director of research for Cherokee Health Systems. Terri Sabella is chief executive officer of Tennessee Primary Care Association.