By U.S. Representative Brian Fitzpatrick and Ashley Klingensmith
Being able to sit in the comfort of your own home and quickly connect with a doctor is the future of medicine. But bureaucratic inertia could send America back in time. Telehealth has saved lives during the pandemic, but Congress is about to let every advancement of the past two years disappear overnight.
The budget Congress recently passed only extends telehealth coverage for five months after the Covid public health emergency ends. That means many Americans may not be able to access telehealth after 2022.
Forcing Americans to abandon telehealth and return to the pre-pandemic status quo would be disastrous because access to telehealth saves lives and reduces costs. That’s why Congress should pass the bipartisan CONNECT for Health Care Act and the Telehealth Modernization Act, which codify temporary pandemic changes that removed regulatory barriers preventing millions from accessing telehealth. Research found that 38% of doctor visits could happen remotely, but Congress needs to do its job to make that happen.
When the pandemic locked down the country, only 11% of Americans used telehealth, but that number quickly quadrupled. The Department of Health and Human Services suspended onerous requirements for doctors, allowed all Medicare beneficiaries to access telehealth (previously only Medicare beneficiaries in rural areas could use telehealth), and removed other barriers that kept many Americans from accessing these services. These reforms allowed patients in underserved rural areas and major urban centers to instantly connect with doctors and nurses on platforms including FaceTime and Zoom.
Only 134,000 of Medicare’s 64 million beneficiaries used telehealth in the first half of 2019, but that number exploded to more than 10 million in 2020. Similarly, before the pandemic, Americans on health care plans conventional healthcare providers had only used telehealth for 1.5% of their healthcare visits. , but now 24% do so because HHS made it easier for doctors to offer telehealth.
The spike in telehealth use has improved health outcomes for many Americans during the pandemic. Ascension Health concluded that more than half of its patients would have ended up in the emergency room without telehealth. According to the Ascension report, “From January 2020 to February 2021, the average telehealth patient saw their monthly rate of emergency room visits drop from 8.5% to 3.03%.
Even before the pandemic forced the issue, researchers agreed that telehealth was good for patients. A white paper by the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality found that “telehealth can extend critical care, speed up emergency care decisions and replace much of face-to-face care. face, which now have the added benefit of reducing exposure to infections.” Telehealth allows physicians to instantly connect with patients and prescribe immediate treatments for minor issues that could become serious without care.
Congress has failed to act to permanently expand access to telehealth in part because of unfounded concerns about rising costs. In fact, increasing access to telehealth would reduce costs, as virtual visits are significantly cheaper than in-person appointments. A 2021 MedPAC analysis found that when Medicare beneficiaries used telehealth, their in-person visits dropped by almost a quarter. The more patients can substitute telehealth services for in-person visits, the lower the costs will be.
Allowing more telehealth visits will also reduce long-term expenses, as it will prevent minor ailments from turning into major problems. A study of veterans showed that telehealth saved an average of $6,500 per patient because it allowed doctors to diagnose and treat patients before more serious problems led to hospitalization. Similarly, an analysis by Americans for Prosperity and the Progressive Policy Institute found that telehealth patients spent less on care over time. In January 2020, telehealth users spent an average of $1,099 per month on care, but that figure dropped to $425 in February 2021, which is lower than those still relying on hospital care. There is some truth in the old maxim: “A ounce of prevention is better than cure.”
Congress should not let the future become the past. 70% of Americans want a personal healthcare option that makes it easier for them to receive care through telehealth. Legislation currently exists to cement the temporary expansion of telehealth in the event of a pandemic, but Congress must ensure that regulation does not kill innovation.
The pandemic has taught America the importance of flexible and adaptable care, and Congress shouldn’t let telehealth and a possible bipartisan opportunity slip through its fingers.
U.S. Representative Brian Fitzpatrick represents Pennsylvania’s 1st congressional district.
Ashley Klingensmith is State Director of Americans for Prosperity-Pennsylvania.