Healthcare groups push to make it easier to prescribe drugs via telemedicine

Dozens of healthcare organizations asked the Biden administration to permanently waive the requirement of an in-person evaluation.

Health advocacy groups are pressing the federal government to remove roadblocks to access to telehealth.

Dozens of healthcare groups are asking President Joe Biden’s administration to permanently waive the requirement of an in-person visit with a clinician before a drug can be prescribed via telehealth. The requirement was suspended as part of the federal government’s COVID-19 public health emergency.

The Biden administration is under growing pressure to end the public health emergency, which eased restrictions for a host of healthcare measures, including telehealth and hospital-at-home programs.

Healthcare organizations have been pressing Congress and the Biden administration to approve reforms to ensure ongoing access to telehealth beyond the pandemic.

Kyle Zebley, vice president of public policy for the American Telemedicine Association, said the Drug Enforcement Administration and the Department of Health and Human Services shouldn’t require a physical appointment first before allowing doctors to prescribe drugs virtually.

“We urge policymakers to consider that, during the pandemic, telemedicine effectively increased access to necessary care for patients in their home or other location, without increased diversion related to the waiver,” Zebley said in a statement. “We welcome the opportunity to discuss a proposed framework to ensure Americans maintain access to clinically appropriate care.”

The groups argued the relaxed restrictions have enabled patients to get easier access to critical medications, including those who are being treated for mental health or substance abuse issues.

The American Medical Association, the American Psychiatric Association and the National Association for Behavioral Healthcare were among the 72 organizations signing the March 3 letter.

The healthcare groups said they wanted to work with the DEA to reduce the illegal sale of drugs, but they said they haven’t seen an uptick of illegal sales since the waivers took effect.

“We believe that the in-person evaluation prior to prescribing controlled substances via telemedicine only results in reduced access to care and does not enhance the DEA’s ability to do its job of limiting drug diversion or pursuing illegal actors,” the letter stated.

The healthcare groups pointed to a study that indicated waiving the in-person requirement increased access to treatment. The study, published in The Journal of Substance Abuse Treatment, found the removal of the in-person evaluation helped ease access to buprenorphine treatment for opioid use disorder via telehealth.

In addition to seeking to permanently end the in-person requirements, healthcare groups are also urging the government to waive any restrictions on the location of a patient.

Saul Levin, CEO and medical director of the American Psychiatric Association, said the reforms would ensure patients have access to mental health treatment that saves lives.

“Our experience during the pandemic was that telehealth meant our member psychiatrists were able to treat more patients, which was critical as we faced a mental health crisis,” Levin said in a statement.

Last week, Senate Republicans narrowly passed a resolution to end the public health emergency, which offered waivers to telehealth and other services. The resolution passed by a 48-47 vote, with three Democratic senators and two Republicans absent.

The Democratic-controlled House isn’t expected to approve the resolution, and the Biden administration has said the president would veto the measure if it got to his desk, according to Politico and other media outlets.

Lawmakers have introduced a bill that would continue all telehealth waivers for two years. The legislation would also direct a study that would make recommendations on permanent telehealth reforms.