The policy response to the COVID-19 pandemic has been mixed. Some policymakers have correctly viewed the pandemic as an opportunity to increase efficiency and resilience in the healthcare industry. Such an effort is being made by Sens. Ted Cruz (R-TX) and Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) with their proposed “Equal Access to Care Act.” This legislation would help deliver medical resources to the most impacted areas of the country by cutting red tape and deregulating telehealth. The result would be greater access to healthcare providers, lower costs, and diminished risks of transmitting diseases.
Telehealth is a collection of means or methods for enhancing health care, public health, and health education delivery and support using telecommunications technologies. It encompasses a broad variety of technologies and tactics to deliver medical services. Current state laws and regulations tend to significantly impede telehealth. Prominent among these impediments are licensing requirements. Current licensing laws typically require a telehealth provider to acquire a license in the same state in which the patient lives. This creates significant financial and bureaucratic hurdles for telehealth providers. The Equal Access to Care Act would allow licensed health care providers to provide health services in states where they are not licensed, as long as they have a license to practice medicine in their home state. In addition, this bill would force existing regulations in conflict with the new law to be revised, creating even more certainty and flexibility in telemedicine.
One of the greatest benefits to deregulating telehealth is that it allows for a more efficient allocation of resources. The Department of Health and Human Services recently classified 7,655 regions across the US as health professional shortage areas. The population of these areas is a staggering 79 million. These shortages are serious even in the best of times; they become devastating in more serious times. The current pandemic amplifies the need for additional providers and resources in these areas. Telehealth frees up medical professionals to focus on the areas most affected by COVID-19 while still maintaining medical access to the general population. It makes the delivery of services more efficient without raising prices.
The expansion of telehealth would also reduce avoidable hospitalizations, a particularly important goal during the COVID-19 pandemic. Telehealth expansion would have a significant impact on senior citizens who are at a higher risk of developing serious illnesses due to COVID-19 but are still in need of medical assistance. Through telehealth, seniors and other patients may still consult physicians without running the risk of catching or spreading the disease. An appointment with a doctor would no longer carry life-or-death consequences.
Access to telehealth would also increase medical savings for both patients and medical providers. One study conducted by Humana found that telehealth visits cost roughly a third of what a face-to-face consultation would cost the insurer. These savings are attributable to the fact that many health concerns can be resolved with a single appointment, saving resources for doctors and hospitals. On the flip side, those same resources can then be turned into savings for health insurers and patients.
The “Equal Access to Care Act” is timely (due to COVID-19), but would represent good policy at any time. The bill would offer immediate relief in light of COVID-19, and long-range economic and medical benefits when COVID-19 is nothing more than a bad memory. Policymakers interested in the efficient delivery of healthcare should take advantage of this opportunity to deregulate telehealth services.