Health groups lobby Congress on telehealth access

More than a dozen organizations are urging lawmakers to permanently protect access to telehealth services. The government has eased restrictions but the waivers are only in place during the COVID-19 public health emergency.

As the use of telehealth has grown dramatically during the COVID-19 pandemic, some healthcare advocates are pushing Congress to permanently allow access to telehealth services.

During the pandemic, the federal government lifted restrictions to enable more people to access telehealth services. As a result, far more people have used telehealth than ever before. The federal government reported a 63-fold increase in telehealth use among Medicare beneficiaries due to the pandemic. There were 52.7 million telehealth visits by Medicare beneficiaries in 2020, compared to 840,000 in 2019.

The government waivers expanding access to telehealth are only in place for the duration of the coronavirus public health emergency. Now, more than a dozen groups, including the AARP, the American Hospital Association and others, have banded together for Teleheath Access for America, a public education campaign. They’re imploring lawmakers to lift the telehealth restrictions permanently.

The groups launched the campaign earlier this month.

“Telehealth allows older Americans to access appropriate health care services conveniently and safely,” Nancy LeaMond, AARP’s executive vice president and chief advocacy and engagement officer, said in a statement.

“We look forward to working with policymakers to ensure America’s seniors continue to have access to telehealth tools that can improve health outcomes, lower costs and enhance quality of life.”

Rick Pollack, president and CEO of the American Hospital Association, said ensuring access to telehealth is critical to improving the health of patients.

“Flexibility provided by policymakers during the pandemic led to greater use of telehealth services made possible by providers’ investments in these tools,” Pollack said in a news release. “Without action from Congress, millions of Americans who have come to rely on telehealth services will lose access to the care they value.”

Many have taken advantage of telehealth services during the pandemic, and it’s helped some people access care in remote areas. Telehealth has also helped some patients who would like to see a doctor but may not want to be exposed to other sick patients in a waiting room.

The healthcare leaders in the campaign tout the high satisfaction from patients who have accessed telehealth services. They also point out telehealth services can be especially beneficial for patients who live in areas with less access to doctors and healthcare services.

While many patients have opted for telehealth visits, a study published in Jama Network Open earlier this month indicated costs are definitely a factor for those weighing in-person and virtual options.

The study found most of those surveyed (66.5%) said they preferred some video visits in the future. But when asked if they’d prefer an in-person visit or a video visit if it could be done either way, a little more than half (53%) said they’d rather see the doctor in person. Among those who said they’d prefer a video visit, 61% changed their minds when informed it would be more expensive.

Brian Hasselfeld, medical director of digital health and telemedicine at Johns Hopkins Medicine, said expanding access to telehealth “is essential to strengthening America’s health care future."

“Congress must act to expand patient choice in every American community, meet patients where they are, and bring health care into the 21st century,” he said in a statement. “We owe it to our patients to make health care access easier, and patients with Medicare should not be excluded from this opportunity.”

Virtual health will remain one of the leading trends of 2022, according to The Business Group on Health, a non-profit organization representing large employers. The group also said it’ll be vital to integrate telehealth witn in-patient care and that patients will need help navigating telehealth options.

The groups teaming up for the Telehealth Access for America campaign include the American Heart Association, Ascension, athenahealth, the Health Innovation Alliance, the American Telemedicine Association and more.

The federal report showing the dramatic rise in telehealth services in Medicare also stated more research is needed to determine how telehealth visits are affecting health outcomes.

If telehealth waivers become permanent, it would allow researchers to see if people are using telehealth to supplement their healthcare needs or if virtual visits will simply be a substitute for in-person visits.