As the pandemic that is the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) grows, telehealth technology is finding its footing as people become more concerned about their level of exposure to the virus and as health systems expect to be overwhelmed with treating those affected.
President Donald Trump recently signed an $8.3 billion package that, in part, allows Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Alex Azar to waive Medicare telehealth payment restrictions during the coronavirus emergency.
For telehealth advocates, this signage is a significant win. The funding bill offers an “excellent opportunity” to remove barriers to digital health technology in response to the coronavirus and other potential crises, Connected Health Initiative senior policy counsel Brian Scarpelli told Politico.
Lawmakers, including Reps. Bill Johnson, David Schweikert, and Peter Welch, co-sponsors of the CONNECT for Health Act, H.R. 4932 (116), also supported giving Azar more extensive authority.
Telehealth may emerge as a vital piece of the battle again ongoing epidemics. The bill may lead to that position, in part. However, the funding included within it is limited only to providers who have billed patients in the past three years. In other words, these providers must have a pre-existing relationship with the patient.
So, this approach limits the ability of telehealth to battle the pandemic. However, the technology can be used outside the provisions laid forth in the build.
To that end, lawmakers say they want to continue backing ways to pursue additional avenues for telehealth payment “during the coronavirus crises and future public health emergencies.”
One example includes BlueCross BlueShield of North Carolina now covering telehealth services at the same rate as in-person visits, chief medical officer Rahul Rajkumar tweeted this week. American Well, a telehealth provider, is preparing for a higher volume of appointments during the coronavirus emergency.
The president’s signed bill allows Medicare to expand the use of telemedicine in outbreak areas, potentially reducing infection risks for vulnerable seniors.
To this point, telemedicine has been limited to serving those in rural areas seeking treatment from specialists, not in their vicinity. Through this bill, federal government waives these restrictions to address any public health emergency created by the coronavirus outbreak.
That said, those who may have the virus must still be swabbed to collect a sample for scientific testing. Still, telehealth may provide a manner for Medicare recipients in outbreak areas to address ongoing medical issues without having to go to the physician’s office or risk coming into contact with someone who is sick.
“This will give seniors greater access to their health care providers without leaving home,” said Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., a longtime telemedicine advocate who helped shoehorn the provisions into the coronavirus bill.
Any telehealth communication covered by the bill must take place through a two-way interactive video and voice link.
In addition to lessening the burden on patients, clinicians can treat patients without exposure to themselves. “Beyond the benefits to the public, telehealth can also help individuals overcome barriers to getting to a clinician such as finding child care, taking off from work, using public transportation or getting to health care facilities from rural or remote areas,” ABC News reports.
Medicare covers about 60 million people age 65 and over, as well as younger people who qualify because of a disability. If telehealth works in this program, this testing ground could prove very profitable for the technology and the industry.
Some states have telehealth laws in place, and others want them.But researchers say patients have been relatively slow to try telemedicine, primarily if they are used to in-person visits.
Telehealth may end up helping combat the outbreak and even flatten the epidemic curve. A best-case scenario is that it may help fight the virus’ spread.