This week, lawmakers in the House and Senate introduced bills that could preserve access to telehealth for Medicare and Medicaid beneficiaries beyond the pandemic.
The House measure would allow Medicare beneficiaries to continue receiving “audio-only” remote care — that is, by phone. The Senate bill would direct the federal government to come up with a list of telehealth services that state Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance Program should cover.
This sustained enthusiasm for telehealth is great for patients. State and federal officials relaxed restrictions on telehealth out of necessity in the early days of the public health emergency, when people were essentially homebound. Those restrictions must not come back after the pandemic passes.
Before COVID-19, Medicare covered telehealth only in rare circumstances. Mental health providers and many specialists were excluded. Most states had rules that prevented out-of-state doctors from seeing in-state patients.
Many states and the federal government waived those rules when the stay-at-home orders began last year. Medicare began paying for routine care furnished via telehealth. Some states permitted their residents to see doctors remotely in other states.
Patients enthusiastically embraced remote care. One in 4 Medicare beneficiaries used telehealth services in the summer and fall of 2020, according to a new Kaiser Family Foundation analysis.
Some states have made their new rules permanent. Indiana, Kentucky, Arizona, and South Dakota all enacted telehealth expansion bills. Several other states may soon follow suit. These measures could be particularly helpful for rural residents, who may have to drive hours to see a doctor.
Telehealth gives patients more choices and fosters more competition among providers. That leads to lower costs and higher quality. Our leaders must make ubiquitous telehealth a permanent feature of our nation’s healthcare system — not simply a short-term peculiarity of the pandemic.
Sally C. Pipes (@sallypipes) is president, CEO, and Thomas W. Smith fellow in healthcare policy at the Pacific Research Institute. Her latest book is False Premise, False Promise: The Disastrous Reality of Medicare for All (Encounter 2020).