The silver lining of COVID-19 has been the dawn of the telehealth era — the greatest exercise in deregulation and individual empowerment in the health sector in years.
In response to the arrival of the pandemic in 2020, Congress and executive branch officials waived a number of rules governing access to medical care, including restrictions on telehealth. As a result, millions of people were able to secure care from the comfort of their homes — many for the first time.
Some of these waivers are scheduled to expire when the public health emergency declared by the federal government ends, likely in January. Congress can’t let that happen. Expanded access to telehealth needs to be a permanent part of the post-pandemic landscape.
Telehealth has boomed over the last two years. There were roughly 53 million telehealth visits among Medicare patients in 2020, marking a nearly 6,300% increase compared to the year before. A 2021 American Medical Association study found that almost three-fourths of Americans plan to use virtual health services in the future — and that nearly 80% of Americans who received telehealth care were satisfied with their latest visit.
Doctors have embraced telehealth, too. A 2022 AMA analysis found that more than 90% of physicians believe digital tools can improve patient care. This year, telehealth usage or planned usage by physicians reached 80%, an increase of 66% from 2016.
These tools have helped reduce health-care costs — by more than 60% between January 2020 and February 2021. Scaling these reductions in cost could be particularly meaningful for seniors, who on average spend more than half again as much on health care compared to younger age groups.
And reducing seniors’ health costs helps taxpayers — the ultimate funders of Medicare — too.
Once the federal public health emergency ends, Congress has mandated a 151-day “extension period” for deregulation and waivers. If lawmakers fail to act between now and then, the telehealth sphere, especially for Medicare, will markedly contract.
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Consider doctor payments. During the pandemic, Medicare reimbursed all mental-health-related telehealth visits. That was important for seniors, many of whom struggled with depression and loneliness related to stay-at-home orders.
But soon, reimbursement for mental health treatment could also require regular in-person visits. Medicare could also cease covering audio-only visits and telehealth care from physical and occupational therapists, among other providers.
Fortunately, lawmakers are working to warn these steps backwards. Bipartisan legislation introduced by Reps. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.), and Debbie Dingell (D-Mich.) has already passed the House and awaits debate in the Senate.
The benefits to be reaped from increased productivity and innovation due to telehealth are only in their infancy. A new cadre of entrepreneurs is fast emerging and brimming with ideas growing out of telehealth in such areas as machine vision and artificial intelligence.
The pandemic forced telehealth upon previously cautious patients, payers, and providers. And in the space of just a couple years, we learned that remote care can often be higher-quality and lower-cost than the in-person status quo.
It’s time to make telehealth a full and a permanent fixture of our healthcare system.
Pipes is president, CEO and Thomas W. Smith Fellow in Health Care Policy at the Pacific Research Institute. Her latest book is “False Premise, False Promise: The Disastrous Reality of Medicare for All.”