At the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, it was hard for many in health care to find a silver lining to what was happening. For some, however, the coronavirus crisis helped break down barriers in telehealth.
“COVID really was a catalyst that forced us to open up a lot more access to people who couldn’t come in for infection reasons, but there are reasons people can’t access care that go well beyond infection risk,” said Dr. Matthew Libby, the Chief Clinical Operations Officer of Outer Cape Health Services in Massachusetts.
Telehealth services, which allow patients to seek treatment without physically going to a doctor’s office, were available pre-pandemic, but Libby told Spectrum News they weren’t widely available. Health experts, including Libby, add that there were several reasons telehealth services hadn’t expanded sooner and one reason was certain Medicare restrictions.
“These regulations around how it can be done, from where and how it’s paid for have been a barrier to expanding it...It’s improved during the COVID health crisis, because the barriers were just taken away, because we had to do it. But what we want to make sure is that we preserve all the benefits,” said Libby.
Libby said he now sees some of those restrictions coming back as the availability of in-person services return.
“We definitely have seen Medicare pay less to community health centers than other payers in Massachusetts, but it varies state to state. And that’s part of the issue. Other payers tend to follow what Medicare does. So Medicare sets the standard that they’re going to pay for telehealth of a variety of modalities nationally, then the other payers usually will follow.” Libby said.
It’s these concerns that have renewed a push by a bi-partisan group of lawmakers to pass the Telehealth Modernization Act. The legislation would make two permanent changes to ensure “that patients can access telehealth anywhere by permanently removing Medicare’s so-called “geographic and originating site” restrictions, which required both that the patient live in a rural area and use telehealth at a doctor’s office or certain other clinical sites" and protects “access to telehealth for patients in rural areas”.
“We found that telehealth actually was a very successful means for delivering a number of the services that we need to keep our populations healthy and safe,” said Katie Harris, the Vice President of Government Affairs at MaineHealth.
MaineHealth is an integrated health system comprising eight local hospital systems, a comprehensive behavioral health care network in Maine.
The bill was first introduced in early 2021 and now supporters claim the changes are needed now more than ever. They said that action to ensure telehealth services are available for those who need it most, even when the current public health emergency ends.
“I do believe that we have now been able to demonstrate the positive aspects of telehealth, which will, we hope, ensure that Congress recognizes the importance of passing this legislation,” Harris said.
While many of the legislators who support the measure come from states with a significant amount of rural territory and elderly constituents, health care providers contend that telehealth services benefit a wide range of people.
“Telehealth has been incredibly successful in inner cities, as well as in rural areas. It’s been it’s providing a convenience factor for families that are very busy, that have a hard time making it to physician offices and other places to receive care. So it eliminates the need for transportation, in many instances. So, I believe that this legislation will have not just bipartisan support, but universal support across the nation,” Harris said.
A spokesperson from the Massachusetts Health & Hospital Association added, “This is an important piece of legislation, and one that is a part of a broader effort to make telehealth a central component of health care in the United States.”