Editor's note: Julia Mirich is a spokesperson for Telehealth Access for America.
“We need more help.” These words from HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra during recent testimony on Capitol Hill capture the urgency for Congress to act on permanent solutions to protect access to telehealth.
In calling for “more help” from lawmakers to protect access to telehealth, Becerra channeled the needs of the millions of Medicare beneficiaries who are counting on permanent solutions to protect their access to virtual care services.
Telehealth Access for America joined Becerra in commending lawmakers for passing a five-month extension of telehealth protections after the end of the public health emergency as part of an omnibus spending package in March.
TAFA also welcomed the administration’s recent three-month extension of the PHE that provides additional temporary protection from an imminent telehealth cliff and gives Congress more time to advance critical reforms to permanently safeguard access to virtual care. But these protections are still temporary and only offer brief reprieve.
The PHE, and the telehealth flexibilities that come with it, have now been extended nine times since the first COVID-19 PHE declaration at the end of January 2020. Millions of patients in communities across the nation who have come to rely on telehealth have been left waiting and wondering if they will be able to receive the virtual care they need once the PHE, and any temporary extension tied to the designation, have ended.
There is overwhelming support for permanent telehealth access and flexibilities among the American public, U.S. voters, and healthcare practitioners.
An April survey released by the Alliance for Connected Care found three in four respondents agreed patients should have the option to receive care via telehealth even after the pandemic. The survey also found 96% of healthcare practitioners believe virtual care expands patient healthcare access and 91% of healthcare practitioners agreed that they should be able to provide care virtually post-pandemic.
Further, as the pandemic strains our healthcare workforce, the survey emphasized a high level of support for telehealth among healthcare workers, with 78% of healthcare practitioners agreeing that being able to provide telehealth services from practitioner-convenient locations would “significantly reduce the challenges of stress, burnout, or fatigue.”
A March poll from the American Medical Association found 80% of physicians indicate that patients have better access to care since using telehealth. In addition, by a more than two-to-one margin (with a 44% plurality), respondents also said telehealth decreased the cost of care.
And a poll released by TAFA in December 2021 found 78% of U.S. voters support legislation that would permanently protect access to telehealth for patients, including a majority of both parties.
The support for permanent and expanded access to telehealth among policymakers is also broad-based and bipartisan.
“The committee can and should work together to make telehealth access permanent, this is the silver lining of the COVID pandemic,” Rep. Kevin Brady, R-Texas, Ranking Member of the U.S. House Committee on Ways & Means, said during a February hearing. “We’ve seen it work and save countless lives of seniors and those facing dire mental health challenges. It’s time to make this solution a permanent one.”
“Seniors across Nevada have benefited immensely from having access to a wide range of telehealth services throughout the pandemic, and we need to make sure they continue to have access to quality care from their homes,” said Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto, D-Nevada, in February. “We’re still feeling the impacts of coronavirus, especially in older and more vulnerable populations, which is why these telehealth services must be extended.”
“The President also supports extending telehealth coverage under Medicare beyond the COVID-19 Public Health Emergency to study its impact on utilization of services and access to care,” reads an excerpt from President Biden’s proposed FY2023 budget. In addition, Becerra also recently remarked that the Biden administration was “going to work as aggressively as [they] can to get as much authority as possible so that the providers of telehealth have an opportunity to save lives.”
All the components for action are in place. It is incumbent on Congress to capitalize on the unprecedented momentum to safeguard permanent access to telehealth. The millions of patients living in every community in America who rely on virtual care, those who can benefit from telehealth innovation and access in the future and the entire U.S. healthcare system are counting on lawmakers to meet the moment.