Telehealth Proves Essential During COVID-19

May 29, 2020

Results in More Services in More Places by More Providers

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Fear of catching an illness by visiting a doctor’s offices should not be an obstacle for patients needing care. Telehealth has proved to be an immensely beneficial form of delivering treatment during the COVID-19 pandemic. The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services’ new rule to increase telehealth access for Medicare Advantage recipients in rural areas is a solid step toward expanding coverage for Americans in need. 

Following Senator Marsha Blackburn’s (R-Tenn.) push to expand telehealth accessibility, the Trump administration identified actions to clear barriers to its use. Americans have been utilizing this health care delivery method at unprecedented speed. From March 2 to April 14, urgent care telehealth visits increased 135 percent, and nonurgent visits increased 4,345 percent. The virtual appointments triaged potential COVID-19 patients to emergency rooms and doctors’ offices, thereby reducing further spread of the virus. 

“The increased use of telehealth has resulted in more services in more places by more providers,” said Senator Blackburn. “Congress must continue to support this expansion and codify the administration’s changes to support the health needs of the American people.”

Telehealth has proven to be an effective alternative for a broad range of patients. 

  • The flexibility telehealth provides for children with autism and their parents results in better care, a group of doctors told Senator Blackburn’s health policy team. Taking a child with autism to an appointment can require parents to take off a full day of work and can be stressful for the child. Telehealth visits not only enable the provider to see the child in his or her natural environment, but also give the parents more flexibility. 
  • In 2019, nearly one million veterans received care through the Department of Veterans’ Affairs’ telehealth services. When the VA expanded its telehealth appointments in response to COVID-19, over two million prescriptions were refilled online in March 2020, the largest number in a single month. As VA Secretary Robert Wilkie told the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, telehealth expansion “is one of the most significant things the department has done” with regard to its COVID-19 response efforts.
  • Telehealth enables providers to reach mental health patients that might otherwise face increased stress while in-person visits are not possible. 
  • Seniors with chronic conditions have also been able to check in with their primary care doctors to receive medication refills, routine care, and advice without being exposed to COVID-19.

The coronavirus pandemic has spurred private insurance companies to recognize the convenience of telehealth services. BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee, the largest private insurer in the state, has pledged to permanently cover telehealth services for Tennesseans. For those using Medicare Part B, most telehealth visits cost the same as in person services. Medicaid plans also cover some telehealth services. Patients should check with their doctors and health insurance provider for information specific to their healthcare plan.

Following Senator Blackburn’s discussions with both the White House and Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services Administrator Seema Verma about a key regulation that previously restricted the use of telemedicine, the administration announced important changes. As a result of Senator Blackburn’s advocacy, the White House dramatically expanded access to telehealth when COVID-19 began to affect Americans’ way of life in March.

Last year, Senator Blackburn introduced her Rural Health Agenda to increase access to health care for the approximately 60 million Americans who live in rural areas – frequently poorer and in worse health than their urban counterparts. She is working with the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee to advance her bipartisan Rural America Health Corps Act, cosponsored by Senator Durbin, which addresses some of the most acute shortages of health care providers in rural America. Her Rural Health Agenda could be included in any future coronavirus responses and would greatly benefit those in rural areas who face unique challenges in the wake of this outbreak.