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.