COVID-19 Shutdown Reveals Telehealth Importance

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In 2017, 76% of hospitals in the U.S. were connecting health care providers to patients – not to mention health care providers to fellow providers – via video and other forms of telehealth technology. It saves time and money, while providing the same, if not better, levels of care satisfaction.

But in today’s health care reality, as we battle an unprecedented global COVID-19 pandemic, telehealth has become more than just a convenient, cost-effective supplement. It has become mission critical. It’s keeping contagious people safe in their homes, thus reducing stress on hospitals and protecting health care workers from infection.

That’s why, as part of its coronavirus response strategy, the Trump administration has been focused on lifting barriers to telehealth for Medicare patients: 44 million people across the country. Rules that limited payments for telehealth visits have been removed. Regulations that blocked the use of popular applications like FaceTime and Skype have been suspended. Thanks to these actions and others like it, telehealth is more accessible than it’s ever been. 

But to continue to see the benefit of that accessibility, even after this pandemic is under control, it’s important lawmakers consider a few additional, more permanent steps.

First, as lawmakers expand Medicare beneficiaries’ access to telehealth, they should also expand Medicare’s existing benefit structure. Medicare’s current benefit structure largely reflects the time Medicare was created – 1965 – well before smart devices, algorithms, and apps had entered the public health lexicon. For that reason, many digital medical technologies, including telehealth technologies, do not fit clearly into existing Medicare benefit categories, posing significant challenges to gaining coverage and payment. Once Medicare’s outdated benefit structure is modernized, patients will see new technologies available to them, and Medicare will see cost savings from improvements in care delivery and reductions in inefficiencies. 

Second, lawmakers should remove geographic restrictions imposed on Medicare coverage of telehealth services, so all patients, regardless of their zip code, have the access to telehealth they deserve. Right now, only patients living in specific rural health professional shortage areas can take advantage of telehealth services, and most of those patients’ homes are not considered covered sites. Instead, patients must travel to a clinic, hospital, or health center to receive their telehealth care, which often eliminates the convenience patients sought in the first place. Without these unnecessary obstacles to telehealth, all patients – rural or urban; from home or from a doctor’s office – can benefit from telehealth care.

Finally, just as many states are allowing licensed out-of-state medical professionals to practice in their communities during the COVID-19 crisis, medical professionals in one state should be allowed to provide telehealth care in other states during the crisis and beyond. Such a simple solution could help relieve the strain of specialist shortages across the country. Another solution: invite all health care providers into the telehealth community. Right now, telehealth services covered by physical therapists, occupational therapists, speech audiologist, and other specialists are not covered by Medicare. It’s a huge hindrance for people looking for specific care.

The coronavirus pandemic has made it increasingly clear: telehealth is the future of health care. But in order to usher that future in efficiently and effectively, the telehealth regulatory system needs improvement. We hope that the steps the Trump administration has taken in recent weeks are only the beginning, and that real, meaningful, permanent reform is on the way. We stand ready to help make it happen.

Andrew Fish is Chief Strategy Officer of AdvaMed, the leading trade association advancing medical technology in the U.S. and around the world.

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