The increased usage of telemedicine visits during the COVID-19 pandemic has both doctors and patients calling to expand access across the U.S. permanently.
Some lawmakers agree. The Advancing Telehealth Beyond COVID-19 Act, introduced in the House, would make the telehealth regulations changed during the pandemic permanent.
“This crisis has forced us to change how we deliver health care more in 20 days than we had in 20 years,” Dr. Robert McLean, a past president of the American College of Physicians, told The New York Times.
The primary barrier to telehealth had been financial.
“Health care systems and hospitals are businesses,” Dr. Sirina Keesara, a health system design researcher at Stanford University, told The NY Times. “If they don’t have a financial incentive to change, they’ll stick with what they know.”
In a sure way to discourage use, Medicare payments had been lower for telehealth than in-person visits. Other restrictions that hampered adoption included limiting services to rural patients, and requiring many to travel to a clinic or office, rather than participate in a call from home, according to reports.
In response to COVID-19 and government-mandated lockdowns, federal agencies loosened regulations to allow patients access to health care without in-person contact.
The proposed Congressional legislation would allow some of the deregulatory changes to become permanent, such as waiving geographical limitations and establishing continuous telehealth coverage at Rural Health Clinics.
“I think there’s going to be huge pressure to abandon all this,” Dr. Kevin Schulman, a hospitalist and economist at Stanford University, told The NY Times. “Providers will want to go back to the way we used to do it.”
Drs. Schulman and Keesara co-authored an editorial in The New England Journal of Medicine calling for digital solutions in the face of the health care system’s analog limitations.
Telehealth usage remains significantly higher than pre-pandemic levels, but visits have started to decline since their peak in April, according to the CommonWealth Fund.
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