Nurturing and Improving Telehealth in the Time of Coronavirus

The spread of the Chinese
coronavirus will strain America’s health care system to the breaking point.
Primary care physicians already are overbooked, medical products are in short
supply, and those who become symptomatic are afraid to visit clinics for fear
of putting other, more vulnerable patients at risk.

Fortunately, many of our
conversations on Capitol Hill have turned toward boosting telehealth services
as a way of easing the burden on health care providers. Various experts and
policymakers finally have realized that the benefits of telehealth transcend
convenience.

The first time that members of the U.S. Senate met with Trump administration officials to discuss coronavirus response, I asked officials with the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services to push for temporary relief of regulations preventing Medicare patients from taking advantage of telehealth services.

President Donald Trump last
week gave the green light for CMS to lift those regulations. Now it’s time for
state Medicaid officials and private insurers to get on board.

All Americans, not just the medically complex or vulnerable patients, should have access to these services.

Coverage of our efforts to
loosen these restrictions has made telemedicine feel like a novel concept. But
we started building the foundation to support health care technology years
before COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus, spread beyond
China’s borders.

As
recently as 2015, the same level of regulatory scrutiny applied to medical
devices controlled the Food and Drug Administration’s approval of
health-focused apps and software packages. This false equivalency created a
regulatory nightmare that discouraged innovators from bringing new products to
market. 

The only answer was to
eliminate unnecessary red tape. In 2015, I introduced legislation that directed
the FDA to come up with a more efficient way of approving health care software
that wouldn’t discourage innovation.

Once
my bill, the SOFTWARE Act, was integrated into legislation called the 21st Century
Cures Act, its provisions made it possible for regulators and the private
sector to work together and give us today’s popular health and fitness apps and
virtual appointment software.

As
our love of tech grew, so did our focus on health care innovation and building
a strong network to support it. Efforts to create the high-speed internet
connections required by telehealth software, including my Internet Exchange
Act, are targeted directly at communities that were left behind by previous
efforts to roll out broadband.

This
continued focus on underserved communities was an intentional effort to
showcase how innovation and lighter regulation can work together to help entire
communities.

Last
year, as part of my rural health agenda, I introduced the Telehealth Across
State Lines Act to guide creation of uniform, national best practices for the
provision of telemedicine across state lines, set up a grant program to expand
existing telehealth programs, and incentivize permanent adoption of telehealth
by Medicare and Medicaid.

These
policies, though focused on rural America, can be adapted to encourage the use
of telemedicine in all communities, and we must implement them as part of our
efforts to combat COVID-19.

Technology that can spare people from the threat of community spread should not be seen as a luxury. It is a necessary tool that we must use as often as we can if we want to “flatten the curve” and eventually suppress transmission of COVID-19 in the United States.

Although adopting telehealth
services originally might have been seen as a convenience, now it is a
necessary path to making access to health care safer for vulnerable
populations.

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Source material can be found at this site.

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