When our economy started to reopen, many hoped we were finally out of the coronavirus woods. But now, a resurgence of cases has led certain state officials to roll back reopening efforts. Three quarters of Americans even agree that the country needs to take another “pause” to contain the spike.
It goes without saying that the end of this crisis is further off than any of us would like. But just as we’ve integrated social distancing and face masks as ways to keep ourselves and others safe, it’s time that increased healthcare access via telemedicine become a permanent part of our “new normal.”
Most states responded to stay-at-home orders by expanding access to telemedicine, allowing for easy doctor visits, including prescriptions, without leaving the safety of one’s home. While every state’s rules are different, changes included lifting requirements to having an established relationship with a doctor before utilizing telemedicine, and allowing out-of-state providers to carry out virtual visits. President Trump even took action to open up access to telemedicine under Medicare, including more flexibility for virtual visits, and payment parity for those visits as well.
These efforts should be applauded, especially since the Centers for Disease Control has said changing the way healthcare is delivered during the pandemic is “needed to reduce staff exposure to ill persons, preserve personal protective equipment (PPE), and minimize the impact of patient surges on facilities.” However, many of these changes are only temporary.
Several states, including Arizona, Florida, and Virginia, will see their telehealth-friendly rules expire once the coronavirus emergency is over. But, just as the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid is working to make increased access to telemedicine permanent at the federal level, states should make a similar commitment.
While telemedicine is nothing new, it’s been sorely underutilized until recently. In fact, only 20 percent of people reported using telemedicine prior to the virus. Now, more than double that have said they’ve used telemedicine during the pandemic, and 60 percent say they intend to continue using telemedicine even after the crisis is over. That’s good news, considering the CDC has also reported that telemedicine can result in better health outcomes for patients.
Consider older or immunocompromised patients who have a higher likelihood of contracting the virus. They’re more likely to suffer serious and potentially fatal complications; yet, they’re also more likely to have frequent doctor appointments. Anyone who is a family caregiver can attest to the fact that there’s almost always a constant schedule of driving from one office visit to another. Telemedicine can make it easier, and safer, for both patients and caregivers.
It can also be a cheaper option for the many Americans that cite cost as a main reason for putting off doctor visits. In a recent survey, almost 40 percent of people said they would think twice about seeing a doctor because of the medical cost, and over 60 percent said they avoided care for the same reason. But telehealth plans can start at well under 20 dollars per month, providing affordable and efficient healthcare access, while diminishing the risk of exposure to COVID-19.
Telemedicine is a great way to quickly diagnose and treat common ailments including sinus infections, bronchitis, or pink eye, but it goes beyond just physical health. Many have found the pandemic to be emotionally and mentally trying -- especially while detached from a daily routine, or cut off from loved ones. Fortunately, telemedicine includes virtual therapy visits. About a quarter of people have said they’d even consider purchasing a telehealth plan exclusively for access to a virtual therapist.
A few states are already on the right track to expanding telemedicine indefinitely. Last May, the Illinois House passed legislation that would extend telemedicine access, including requiring insurers to reimburse telemedicine at the same rate as in-person visits. A similar bill passed in the Rhode Island Senate, and Colorado passed legislation aimed at making increased access to telemedicine permanent.
As our social norms change to keep us safe in the long term, so should our healthcare. Now, it's time for the rest of the country to get on board.
Jan Dubauskas is a healthcare expert, enthusiastic insurance pro, attorney and mom serving as vice president of healthinsurance.com.
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