Patients and providers who benefited from pandemic era telehealth flexibilities are calling on lawmakers to examine data that can provide valuable insight into which temporary policies should become permanent.
An Explosion of State Activity
Sarah Jaromin of the National Conference of State Legislatures catalogued the explosion of policy activity on telemedicine-related issues ranging from licensure to access to broadband capacity. “Telehealth is still a really hot topic in the legislatures this session,” Jaromin said. Nearly 500 bills have been introduced in state legislatures related to telehealth in addition to more than 500 rule changes proposed by governors and state health boards.
Two forces are spurring this momentum. The first is patient satisfaction with telehealth, a point emphasized by Dr. David Charles, a neurologist at Vanderbilt University Medical Center and Chief Medical Officer of Alliance for Patient Access. Many telehealth patients are “happy to be getting access to care. They didn’t have to take off a day of work to go see the doctor, and [faced] less travel time and difficulty with parking.”
This satisfaction has led many state policymakers to look for opportunities to preserve telehealth access through state-level reforms.
Federal Reforms in Play
The second source of policymakers’ continued interest is the upcoming end of the three-year COVID-19 public health emergency, which will officially come to a close May 11.
Alliance for Patient Access Policy Director Gavin Clingham detailed the debate about telehealth policy in Washington, D.C. Several flexible rules created during the pandemic were made permanent late last year — primarily ones related to mental health — while others were extended for two years only.
“So, we are in this timeframe now when Congress can consider which of these [policy flexibilities] are being used appropriately, which are important and which should be maintained,” Clingham explained.
Multiple bills are under consideration that would extend, for instance, greater telehealth access for rural communities and audio-only services and allow patients to receive telehealth care from their homes and not just certain designated health centers.
Broadband Access & Licensure Among Key Issues
While federal policymakers consider reforms, state lawmakers have a significant role to play in addressing barriers to appropriate telehealth access, too.
All three experts also noted the crucial relationship of powerful, high-speed internet access to telehealth – and lawmakers’ interest in it for that reason. “Broadband is the backbone on which telehealth stands,” Charles noted.
According to Jaromin, the most popular telehealth issue among legislators is interstate licensure for telehealth providers. It is the focus of 162 of the 482 state bills now under consideration across the country.
The experts all agreed that patients, providers and advocacy groups have an important opportunity to make their voices heard in this season of debate and reform.