COVID-19 has forced those of us in the United States to face the realities of our healthcare system. At the same time, the pandemic is opening doors to a new era of telehealth, and the policy changes that the pandemic has spurred will forever change the way we think about healthcare and telemedicine.

Historically, the Legislature has been slow on making telehealth widely available. However, the pandemic has both increased Congress’ willingness to broaden previously stringent restrictions and highlighted the need for telehealth services. Now, a telehealth visit could mean the difference between life or death as a result of COVID-19 contraction in a crowded hospital or physician’s office. This creates tremendous opportunity for improvement and innovation moving forward.

The Senate and House have included telehealth provisions in the COVID-19 relief packages, while state legislatures are taking similar measures to ensure widespread availability and adoption. Government agencies have also taken swift action to relax regulations in an effort to provide increased access and lessen the risk of infection for all members of society, but particularly those who are most vulnerable.

Active Legislation with Telehealth Provisions

  1. Decreasing Restrictions on Telehealth to Encourage Utilization: On March 17, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) waived restrictions on telehealth services so patients could receive a wide range of healthcare services without visiting a doctor’s office. Prior to this action, Medicare would only reimburse telehealth visits if a patient was in a designated rural area and visited designated location to get a telehealth consultation.
  2. Ensuring Support for Seniors: The Advancing Connectivity during the Coronavirus to Ensure Support for Seniors (ACCESS) Act (3517), sponsored by Sens. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) and Bob Casey (D-PA), would increase nursing facilities to access to telehealth services and acquire technologies to allow telehealth visits during COVID-19.
  3. Increasing Access to Care in Rural Areas: The Healthcare Broadband Expansion During COVID-19 Act (R.6474), introduced by Reps. Anna Eshoo (D-CA) and Don Young (R-AK), would provide $2 billion to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC)’s Rural Health Care program to increase remote treatment and ensure high quality internet at health care facilities.
  4. Making Access to Telehealth Permanent: The Helping Ensure Access to Local TeleHealth (HEALTH) Act (R. 7187), introduced by Reps. G.K. Butterfield, (D-NC), and Glenn Thompson (R-PA), would make Medicare payments for telehealth at federally qualified health centers and rural health clinics permanent.

The Future of Telehealth Access

While these bills are an important step toward creating a more connected, better prepared healthcare system, we need to think strategically about how we arm ourselves with these new capabilities and how we can ensure a more equitable healthcare future. Healthcare and technology companies must work together to bridge the digital divide with ethical, cost-effective solutions. Contact tracing of COVID-19 and other infectious diseases poses serious privacy problems, and we must maintain the principles of democracy and personal freedoms reign true when dealing with the pandemic and the recovery. With congressional support and technical ingenuity, we believe that telehealth can become the standard for healthcare in the near future.

If you are a healthcare or technology company looking to advance an issue with influencers and policymakers in D.C., our healthcare experts are happy to help. Reach out to us at healthcare@rhstrategic.com if you would like to set up a conversation.

This blog is the last in a series of six blogs produced by the firm’s healthcare practice. You can read the other blogs in the series here:

How to Navigate the Media’s New Normal During COVID-19

Five Tips for Internal Communications During a Crisis

Take Your Event Online with Alternative Event Models

When and How to Tell Brand Stories in a Crisis

Turning the Right Dials on Marketing and PR Programs

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RH Strategic is a Seattle and D.C.-based communications firm with a nationwide presence and additional global reach via membership in the Worldcom Public Relations Group. We provide strategic public relations for innovators in the technology, public sector and healthcare markets.