Coronavirus Pandemic Highlights Need For Updated Telemedicine Rules

Lawmakers in Georgia are joining in the telemedicine movement by forwarding legislation that would allow residents of the state to renew their contact lens and eye glass prescriptions online from the comfort of their homes. Increased utilization of the innovative "store and forward" technology would allow Georgians more flexible and more efficient utilization of vision care, and HB629, introduced by Rep. Mark Newton, would help countless patients in a convenient and cost-effective manner.

One of the silver linings to the coronavirus global pandemic - and there have not been many - has been a willingness among policymakers to explore ways to increase access to healthcare at a time when millions of Americans have been unable to leave their homes due to pervasive lockdowns and a fear of going out in public. The push toward “telemedicine” has played out in an array of executive orders at the federal and state levels from relaxing occupational licensing requirements, to allowing healthcare providers to work across state lines and to expanding insurance coverage for telemedicine services. 

“Store and forward” telehealth allows patients to obtain contact lens and eyeglass prescriptions either by taking an online vision exam or by allowing an online vendor the ability to communicate directly with their eye doctor to confirm an existing prescription. Unlike “real-time” telemedicine where patients and doctors communicate via phone or video, this technology allows patients to input their medical information and complete an online test at a convenient time and then forward the information to their doctor to review. 

Currently, Georgians can only use this type of technology if they are physically seated in their doctor’s office, which defeats the purpose of telemedicine. HB 629 would allow for the use of this telemedicine platform from the comfort of one’s home. To be clear, online vision testing does not replace the need for comprehensive eye examinations performed in-person by eye care providers. The service is designed for the purpose of renewal of an existing prescription only. Consumers are asked a variety of medical questions as part of the online exam to make certain they qualify for the telemedicine service. This serves to screen out those individuals with health risk factors that would require an in-person exam. If a risk factor is identified, the consumer is directed to make an appointment with their eye care provider. The American Academy of Ophthalmology supports the use of this technology provided it is used under the supervision of licensed eye doctors. 

There are many reasons why this policy would be good for Georgia consumers. For one, the cost savings is significant. The average cost of an in-person prescription renewal is $185 compared to $40 on average for online screening. At a time when many have lost jobs or have been forced to work fewer hours, this means extra money for families struggling to make ends meet. Simply stated, the convenience of in-home testing cannot be understated. Patients can conduct the test in the comfort of their home at any time of day without having to take time away from work to travel. It also removes the fear of many to the risk of public exposure to the coronavirus. Further, those who live in rural areas will have increased access to services that may not be available in their hometown communities. 

A final reason for supporting this new technology is the potential for savings to Georgia taxpayers. State government employees who participate in government-funded health insurance could significantly reduce overall government costs. At a time when states are grappling with budget constraints created by the pandemic, this could provide significant cost-savings. 

The coronavirus pandemic has created many challenges for Americans and policymakers. With challenge comes opportunity and Georgia lawmakers are on track to provide a valuable opportunity to residents, consumers and taxpayers of the state. Expanding Georgia’s current telemedicine laws to allow for online eye exam technology makes good sense and continues to move the state in the direction of progress and innovation.

Leah Vukmir is the Vice President for State Affairs for the National Taxpayers Union and a former Wisconsin state legislator.