Telehealth Expansions Explode During COVID-19

By FOCUS, a Leonine Business

One of the many major landslide changes that have come about in state policy since the start of the coronavirus crisis has been the rapid expansion of telehealth. What was once a niche service used sparingly in place of in-person office visits has exploded in popularity, due to the necessity of keeping individuals at home and out of hospitals and doctors’ offices, where COVID-19 could potentially be contacted or spread. Because telehealth was previously not the priority it is now, most telehealth legislation was aimed at expanding access in rural areas not well served by physicians or specialists.

Since the crisis, both the scope and pace of telehealth expansion has grown significantly. Hospitals and providers are now contending with a need to safely provide remote healthcare services to all individuals while also facing both insurance and logistical problems. States have been at the forefront of this evolution, pushing new policies to provide patients and doctors with new and reliable telehealth opportunities, while ensuring that these services are covered by health plans.

States have used many options to expand access to telehealth, including: expanding Medicaid and insurance coverage options for telehealth visits; expanding services offered through telehealth; providing parity in coverage for telehealth and in-person visits; reducing licensure barriers to practicing telehealth and allowing out-of-state doctors to provide service in other states.

In every state, traditional barriers that once favored in-person doctor visits are coming down. Since March, when states began going into lockdown, at least 247 bills and regulations relating to COVID-19 coverage and telehealth have been enacted across 40 states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico. Additionally, all 50 states have undertaken some kind of temporary policy change to further facilitate the use of telemedicine.

At the federal level, the Department for Health and Human Services, the Centers for Disease Control and the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services have all put forth federal guidance and policies to expand local access to telehealth services and reduce costs for patients receiving services. While the nation remains politically polarized on nearly every issue, it is remarkable to see that both the federal and state governments have moved in the same direction on telehealth.

Lawmakers know it is more difficult to take something away than to give it – and now that many barriers to telehealth have come down, they are likely to stay down for the foreseeable future. With healthcare costs in the U.S. already among the highest in the world and rising, telehealth not only presents a safer option for patients and providers in the age of COVID-19, but it also presents a major cost-cutting opportunity, by allowing doctors to treat more patients at more times of the day, and allowing patients access to providers and services that they may once have opted to skip out on.