Richmond Times-Dispatch: Editorial: Telehealth surge should help cut the red tape on broadband expansion

RICHMOND TIMES-DISPATCH, CHRIS GENTILVISO

Before COVID-19, telehealth services largely were a novelty. The pandemic — and continued health care needs other than the coronavirus — made them essential.

Federal relief measures temporarily have eased access to telehealth services. Medicare beneficiaries don’t have to prove they have a pre-existing relationship with a provider. Community health care centers and rural clinics have been added as eligible virtual providers. And the Federal Communications Commission’s $200 million COVID-19 Telehealth Program is helping organizations across the country connect patients to services.

It should not take a pandemic for this kind of progress to take place. And the surge in telehealth services should help cut the red tape on broadband expansion.

In mid-June, U.S. Sens. Mark Warner and Tim Kaine, both Virginia Democrats, urged Congress to make recent telehealth changes permanent. Early on in the COVID-19 pandemic, Medicare beneficiaries using virtual services rose from around 11,000 (week of March 7) to almost 1.3 million (week of April 18). Two additional considerations: How easy (or costly) was it for patients to get online and how many were unable to — or chose not to — because they lacked broadband?

The higher demand is not limited to Medicare. According to a recent NBC 12 report, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs’ telehealth platform — VA Video Connect — is gaining traction. In central Virginia, 18,000-plus virtual appointments took place since this past October. How much more efficient could the VA be if telehealth services help refine care and reduce costs?

The interest in telehealth services is not limited to patients. U.S. Rep. Abigail Spanberger, D-7th, recently spearheaded a bipartisan letter from Congress to the FCC, asking for greater clarity on the COVID-19 Telehealth Program.

While there were hundreds of awardees, only a handful were in Virginia — the University of Virginia Health System in Charlottesville ($767,139), the Loudoun Community Health Center T/A HealthWorks for Northern Virginia in Leesburg ($93,380) and Eastern Shore Rural Health System, Inc. in Onancock ($174,634). The letter asked for data ranging from the number of patients being served, to an estimate of how much it would cost to fulfill all applications.

“Providers in our districts are very interested in participating in the program,” wrote Spanberger, U.S. Rep. Dusty Johnson, R-S.D., and a few dozen congressional colleagues in the letter. “However, we are concerned that many eligible providers and worthy telehealth projects did not receive funding from the initial appropriation.”

But let’s not forget: Amid all the momentum for telehealth services, there is a bigger missing piece for some patients — a strong internet connection to deliver the care.

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