Telehealth Services Drastically Expanded During the COVID-19 Pandemic

Published: March 26, 2020

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As COVID-19 continues to rapidly spread throughout the U.S., hospitals and other healthcare providers are turning to telehealth in an effort to flatten the curve of the virus.

As the number of COVID-19 cases continues to skyrocket in the U.S., telehealth has become a crucial tool in the fight against this pandemic. Telehealth, also known as telemedicine, is the use of technology such as email, phone, videoconferencing, and video chat services that enable patients to get care remotely. Healthcare professionals can provide responses in real time, for instance via webcam, or by directing patients’ questions to answers that are already online. Telehealth has previously been touted as a convenience for patients who are busy or far away, but health experts are now pushing these services as way to help flatten the curve of COVID-19 infections and deploy medical staff and lifesaving equipment wisely.

The Trump Administration, along with numerous health experts and organizations, is urging people to utilize telehealth services for mild COVID-19 cases, as well as for routine medical consultations. The primary goal is to keep people with symptoms of the virus at home, if their condition doesn’t warrant hospitalization, and reduce its spread. This initiative also aims to promote social distancing by keeping people who need regular, necessary medical care out of healthcare facilities where the virus might also be spread.

In recent weeks, several unprecedented actions have been taken at the federal, state, and local levels to expand telehealth services in the U.S.:

The Trump Administration temporarily expanded telehealth for Medicare beneficiaries and relaxed some HIPAA requirements to increase accessibility to these services. On March 6, Medicare began paying providers for a broad range of telehealth services and reimbursing providers for virtual care at the same rate as for in-person visits. Additionally, the relaxed HIPAA requirements will allow providers to use their personal phones to make it easier to provide services, and will allow them to use enforcement discretion related to copays.

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is honoring all Rural Health Care (RHC) Program funding requests filed in 2019 by temporarily waiving the rules necessary for full funding. The RHC Program provides funding to eligible health care providers for telecommunications and broadband services necessary for the provision of health care. By waiving the funding requirements, providers will be able to more quickly obtain the critical technologies they need to serve rural communities during this crisis.

Federal officials are allowing all doctors and medical professionals to practice across state lines, a move that removes a key barrier to the adoption of telehealth. While the ruling doesn’t necessarily eliminate interstate licensing, it gives providers the ability to treat patients in other states. In addition to encouraging telehealth, it will also be easier for hospitals to have their needs met by providers in adjoining states.

The Department of Health and Human Services is releasing $100 million in federal funds to more than 1,000 health centers across the country to help them expand telehealth programs to fight the COVID-19 pandemic. This funding is provided by the Coronavirus Preparedness and Response Supplemental Appropriations Act, signed by President Trump on March 6. The health centers receiving this funding serve approximately 28 million Americans and operate 13,000 service delivery sites.

Every day, state and local health systems continue to expand their coronavirus services to include telehealth. State, city, and county healthcare providers are ramping up their ability to provide telehealth, while both private and public health insurance carriers are expanding their coverage to reimburse providers for virtual services. This expansion is due in large part to the sweeping executive actions being taken by many governors to promote telehealth in their states.

Indeed, the COVID-19 pandemic may be a tipping point for telehealth, which has generally been an underutilized tool in American healthcare. According to a 2019 Fair Health white paper, telehealth generated less than 1% of U.S. medical claims in 2018. However, at a time when the U.S. economy is suffering, telehealth stocks are growing and some of the top stocks have nearly doubled. Indeed, with the unprecedented actions being taken to expand telehealth, the future of these services is promising. In the past, telehealth has not been the preferred service model for providers or insurance carriers since rates for virtual visits are generally lower than for in-person ones. Yet, if some of the current regulatory changes become permanent, telehealth can continue to grow even after the COVID-19 pandemic is over.

Can telehealth help flatten the curve of COVID-19 cases? Health experts believe it can, if it’s utilized the right way and if there is a coordinated response. This response should prioritize the use of pre-existing technologies, privacy measures, and standardized data collection. Only time will tell if telehealth plays a key factor in reducing the spread of the virus, but as providers and patients start recognizing its benefits, it will likely continue to be a major player in the healthcare market long after the virus is gone.

For the latest research and analysis on the COVID-19 pandemic, including updates related to telehealth, check out GovWin’s Coronavirus Government Response Resource Center.