Millions of Americans stayed connected with their doctors through telemedicine for the first time during the COVID-19 pandemic. Still, those without convenient access to care, such as people in rural areas and senior citizens, could lose access to that virtual care once the outbreak is finally over.
A bipartisan group of U.S. senators hopes a new bill they introduced this month on Capitol Hill will preserve the gains telemedicine has made among Americans in the last year or so, even when the coronavirus pandemic is eradicated once and for all.
The Protecting Rural Telehealth Access Act would “permanently expand patient access to telehealth.” It would “authorize health providers to deliver virtual care to Medicare enrollees located in any ZIP code in the country” and allow patients to receive telehealth care from their homes.
The bill would also authorize facilities such as critical access hospitals and rural health centers to deliver virtual care and allow health care workers to consult their patients through telephone calls.
Even as telemedicine visits show a decline from about 12 million per month at their peak to less than 9 million every month today, the demand for virtual medical visits far exceeds the 2019 levels, which topped out at less than 600,000 visits per month.
Some companies are launching telemedicine subscriptions to meet demand — and capitalize on Americans’ growing interest in getting medical treatment from the couch — or anywhere they can connect with their smartphones.
Why Congress Is Pushing Telemedicine
“In rural areas across the United States — especially in West Virginia — many Americans don’t have access to reliable, affordable broadband, which is essential for video telehealth services,” said Senator Joe Manchin, D-West Virginia), one of the bill’s sponsors.
“Instead, many rural Americans utilize audio-only telehealth appointments, which are now equally reimbursed after I fought to ensure that our healthcare professionals are reimbursed fairly for their hard work,” he said.
“When we began to see the light at the end of the tunnel for the COVID-19 pandemic, we immediately recognized the importance of making these telehealth flexibilities permanent,” said Manchin.
The bill “ensures that rural telehealth providers can give rural Americans the quality care they deserve by eliminating restrictions on the use of telehealth options and ensuring doctors can be reimbursed for services they provide to patients from the comfort of their homes,” said Manchin.
“It should not have taken a pandemic for Medicare to finally unlock the potential of telehealth services — and now we need to make sure that these vital telehealth services continue to be available to patients long after the COVID-19 pandemic is over,” said Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-New Hampshire), another bill sponsor.
“Even before the pandemic, access to telehealth was critical to helping Iowans in rural areas get the care they need,” said fellow bill sponsor Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa). “Now that we’ve seen its success, there’s no reason we shouldn’t make these changes permanent to continue supporting both our rural patients and hospitals.”
“The COVID-19 pandemic reiterated the effective and efficient access to care telehealth provides to patients, especially those in rural communities,” said bill sponsor Sen. Jerry Moran (R-Kansas). “Even after the pandemic ends, our health care system should bolster telehealth services as a reliable option to serve patients and help expand health care options and availability for rural America.”
Tough Road Ahead For Telemedicine Bill
The Protecting Rural Telehealth Access Act, like similar reforms introduced by Sens. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii), Roger Wicker (R-Mississippi) and Tim Scott (R-South Carolina), would “ensure America’s health care workers can continue delivering high-quality care long after this pandemic ends.”
Before the pandemic, federal law prohibited physicians and nurses from delivering telehealth to Medicare enrollees who lived in urban and suburban communities and barred patients from communicating with their doctors at home, meaning senior citizens couldn’t use telehealth for some services.
Congress and the Trump administration lifted these restrictions under the federal CARES Act to allow more patients to see their doctors and get the treatment they needed from home.
Before COVID-19, about 134,000 Medicare enrollees received virtual care in 2019. After the reforms in the federal CARES Act took effect, the number of enrollees receiving telehealth increased to 10.1 million, a 7,500 percent increase in 2020.
Under the proposal being considered by the Senate, video and audio technologies would continue to allow physicians and nurses to deliver routine consultations for patients who lack access to in-person care. New telehealth technologies, including remote patient monitoring, will allow doctors and hospitals to consistently monitor patients with chronic illnesses and connect these patients with top specialists.