In April 2022, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services extended the COVID-19 public health emergency by another 90 days, the ninth extension since the pandemic first hit American shores in March 2020. That, in combination with a $5 billion provision within a $1.5 trillion omnibus spending bill that received Congressional approval a month earlier, ensured that telehealth will remain a prominent care modality, at least until the end of the year.
Still, the many advocates for such care would like to see “a longer extension in the future or a permanent solution to provide more certainty to patients and providers that telehealth won’t disappear,” as Kyle Zebley, Vice President of public policy at the American Telemedicine Association and Executive Director of ATA Action, told HealthcareITnews.com.
In other words, there is widespread support for a retreat from what has come to be known as the “telehealth cliff” – i.e., a sudden halt to the development and expansion of virtual care – after we put the pandemic behind us, once and for all.
Debra Patt, Executive Vice President of Texas Oncology, told Healio.com that there is “uncertainty in the path ahead,” citing concerns about not only the status of federal policy, but whether state policy aligns with it.
Moreover, she told Healio.com:
“Will private insurance companies continue to follow suit? I would say, by and large, so far, they have. They also continue to see it as a useful tool for patients to get the care that they need. They have followed suit, with some caveats: some stopped paying for phone-only services and require the bimodal, audio and video services. Those are the details that remain uncertain and provide some degree of risk for practices and doctors who continue to want to use telemedicine as a useful tool to serve patients. But it’s my perception that that risk is low overall.”
Studies have shown that while telehealth usage peaked in April 2020 as a means of providing care while minimizing the risk of contracting COVID-19, some 85 percent of physicians have continued to use it, though often in combination with in-person visits. Two officials for the Commonwealth Fund, a healthcare research organization, noted in a 2020 report that telehealth “cannot replace all types of visits – for instance, in-person visits are still necessary to diagnose and test certain complex conditions.”
The American Medical Association asserted that barriers to more widespread use of telehealth are patients’ digital literacy, as well as their access to the technology or a broadband internet connection.
Zebley, for one, told Healio.com that he is optimistic about where things are heading, but also sounded a cautionary note regarding those who “really benefited from the way the U.S. healthcare system was structured” before the pandemic. As he put it:
“There are also those who, whether they say it directly or not, view patients as a market share. And they want to maintain access to patients and do not want telehealth companies or those organizations that are offering telehealth services to interfere with and disrupt their market share. While everyone is going to have to start off saying that they’re supportive of telehealth in any public remarks — because you’re not treated seriously if you’re not supportive of telehealth — they could be very savvy in putting up obstacles, which come in a variety of different ways — some more creative than others.”
Miles to go, then. But for the time being, at least, we have edged back from the telehealth cliff. While a great many clinicians see the advantages in maintaining that position well into the future, there is still work that must be done.