Weekly Columns

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, Congress and the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services launched policy improvements to remove barriers to some telehealth services. The public health emergency has made it clear more must be done to improve and expand access to this manner of health care delivery. We must ensure health care providers and patients have the requisite tools and resources while also modernizing federal policy to support the growing demand for telehealth.

During the last week of March 2020, telehealth visits increased 154 percent compared to the same time the previous year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. As a result of flexibilities unanimously approved under the CARES Act – which passed the same month and waives telehealth requirements for the duration of the pandemic – more people are relying on this technology to connect with their doctors.

It continues to be a popular method for patients to access quality health care that is convenient, safe and efficient. It’s also well-liked among health professionals. Arkansas medical providers have endorsed this approach and have called for permanent changes to make it easier to use telehealth in the future, and Congress has taken steps to make this happen.

I’m proud to support the Creating Opportunities Now for Necessary and Effective Care Technology (CONNECT) for Health Act. This legislation, which has widespread, bipartisan support in the Senate, would expand Medicare coverage of telehealth services, make permanent COVID-19 telehealth flexibilities and provide a way for patients to safely connect with their doctors.

Telehealth is here to stay. We must take appropriate steps to remove the barriers that exist for patients who seek care in this format. This legislation will complement the Telehealth Modernization Act that aims to provide Medicare beneficiaries with continued access to the lifesaving capabilities of telehealth services. 

It’s important that we update our policies to reflect the crucial role telehealth plays in health care delivery and continue expanding its reach to populations in rural and underserved areas.

The University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences (UAMS) has been a leader on this front in our state. The school has received federal funding to encourage expansion of telehealth through training and video conferencing equipment so patients and doctors can connect remotely, including nearly $1 million for digital health training for medical professionals and patients in the Arkansas Delta last year. This grant will help bridge the gap that exists for patients in this region and their ability to access health care, get appointments with their doctors and ultimately lead to better health care outcomes.

Broadband deployment goes hand-in-hand with telehealth. Ensuring high-speed internet availability for all Arkansans is crucial to the viability and practicality of digital health care delivery.We’ve made good progress, but we must continue to expand connectivity so more people can use this option to get the care they need.

As telehealth continues to play an increasingly important role in our health care system, we should proactively seek to help medical providers and patients access and utilize it while, at the same time, working to improve it and provide even more of its benefits to Americans eager to leverage the power of technology to lead longer, healthier lives.