Many physicians have quickly deployed new technologies or updated existing capabilities to deliver telehealth services during the COVID-19 pandemic, made possible in part by temporary changes to Medicare coverage and reimbursement for virtual care. Given these investments, an automatic return to pre-COVID telehealth policies would be a setback for physicians and patients’ access to care. Physicians need adequate and stable telehealth payment and standardized coverage for telehealth services across all payers to continue providing virtual care to their patients.
As Congress and the administration contemplate long-term, permanent telehealth policies, it is critical to recognize that telehealth is one modality of providing care but should not fully replace in-person primary care. Telehealth is most effective within the context of an existing patient-physician relationship, and policies regarding coverage, payment, and taxable treatment of telehealth services should be designed to strengthen that relationship rather than disrupt it.
Telehealth can have tremendous benefits for patients and clinicians, but not everyone has benefited equally. Congress should commission further studies of telehealth policies to determine whether they are improving access to care for underserved communities, protecting patient safety, and advancing health equity. Further, Congress must address the “digital divide” – the lack of access to broadband internet or computers or smartphones, and the lack of digital health literacy.
While Congress weighs legislative action to extend telehealth flexibilities before the COVID-19 public health emergency (PHE) ends, the Academy needs you to urge your members of Congress to act to extend temporary Medicare telehealth flexibilities for at least one year beyond the PHE, preserving patients’ access to care and offering certainty and benefits for physicians practicing telehealth. We need your voice – speak out now!