The use of telemedicine skyrocketed this spring as medical providers turned to remote patient consultations to help minimize the potential spread of coronavirus.
As clinics reopen, providers should continue offering this option to patients. Federal health officials should make permanent the emergency orders that helped advance its use by Medicare patients. State officials should address lingering impediments to this important complement to in-person patient care.
Telemedicine can play an important role in health care, helping prevent spread of infection while increasing provider efficiencies and patient access to care. Remote visits can offer providers valuable insights into home environments that can actually help with diagnosis and treatment — much like a home visit — while eliminating travel time.
It can help ease the strain of provider shortages in specialties, such as behavioral health, by eliminating geographic barriers to care.
The technology has been available for decades. It augments, rather than replaces, in-person consultations. Still, providers have been slow to adopt it. That’s true even in forward-thinking states like Washington, where lawmakers like Sen. Randi Becker, R-Olympia, have long worked to require health plans to cover appropriate telehealth services and increase information sharing among the medical community.
Becker’s most recent bill, SB 5385, required private insurers to reimburse providers at the same rate for in-person and telemedicine patient visits by Jan. 1, 2021. It was fast-tracked by executive order. In March, President Donald Trump signed an executive order authorizing Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services to expand telehealth benefits for its enrollees.
The state parity law is permanent. Federal officials should follow suit. Telehealth services can be of particular benefit to the more than 44 million beneficiaries enrolled in Medicare nationwide.
Here in Washington, lawmakers have more work ahead: Lack of broadband infrastructure in rural communities, internet access and devices continue to pose barriers that should be removed.
This spring has clearly shown the value of telemedicine as part of a comprehensive health-care system. After the immediate threat of coronavirus passes, we must be sure not to lose these important gains.