Lawmakers See Equity-Enhancing Future for Telehealth Beyond Pandemic

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Reps. Robin Kelly, D-Ill., and Anna Eshoo, D-Calif., view telehealth services as a key tool to promote equity in health care post-pandemic

Two House lawmakers active in tech policy on Monday outlined how to transition telehealth services used widely during the pandemic into permanent tools capable of reducing health care disparities in the U.S after the current crisis subsides. 

The coronavirus pandemic has hit communities of color and underprivileged Americans at disproportionate rates, highlighting persistent gaps in health care access in the U.S. Telehealth is touted as a tool that not only helps prevent the spread of the virus, but also one that enables access to care for these underserved populations. 

But in order to realize telehealth’s potential, Reps Robin Kelly, D-Ill., and Anna Eshoo, D-Calif., said services must be reimbursable under Medicare and broadband access needs to be guaranteed. 

“I believe telehealth can and should be the great equalizer when it comes to health care access,” Kelly said in a joint press call with Eshoo. 

The Health and Human Services Department in response to the distancing measures needed to prevent the spread of the coronavirus softened Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, or HIPPA, enforcement so that providers could use technologies like FaceTime and Zoom to safely care for patients. HHS also allowed beneficiaries to pay for telehealth services in any circumstances under Medicare. 

In order for telehealth to become a truly equity-enhancing tool, these types of changes need to be made permanent, according to the lawmakers. 

In June, Kelly introduced a bill requiring the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services to evaluate how telehealth was used during the coronavirus pandemic within a year following the end of the public health emergency. 

“That way, Congress and CMS can develop data-driven, long-term telehealth policies that actually work,” Kelly said. 

Kelly’s bill was incorporated in the Health, Economic Assistance, Liability Protection and Schools, or HEALs, Act—the stimulus bill drafted by Senate Republicans. Kelly said she takes the inclusion of her bill in the HEALs Act as a good sign her legislation may pass. 

“There’s no question telemedicine will change health care and health care delivery,” Kelly said. “The fundamental question is will the benefits of telehealth technology benefit everyone or just promote privilege?”

Eshoo, who chairs the Energy and Commerce Committee’s health subcommittee and also serves on the communications and technology subcommittee, introduced a bill during the pandemic to work on the problem of broadband access.  

Eshoo’s Healthcare Broadband Expansion During COVID-19 Act grows the Federal Communication Commission’s Rural Health Care Program. The program subsidizes healthcare providers’ broadband expenses. That bill has been wrapped into the House’s stimulus bill, known as the HEROES Act, Eshoo said. The funding provided under the CARES Act, the original coronavirus stimulus bill, has long since dried up, she added. 

“Telehealth has moved front and center,” Eshoo said. “But we want to make sure that what is added to make it permanent reaches across all the various parts of the systems and close the digital divide for healthcare providers.”