Some 340 organisations have signed a letter urging the US Congress to extend remote healthcare access for patients beyond the Covid-19 pandemic.

National and regional healthcare bodies from across all 50 states have sent a “powerful message” to congressional leaders in an attempt to make telehealth flexibilities permanent in the US, according to American medical device trade organisation AdvaMed (Advanced Medical Technology Association).

Improved access to telehealth, which includes virtual appointments, remote monitoring, and other technologies allowing long-distance communication between doctors and patients, was made possible at the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic when Congress waived several statutory barriers.

However, if Congress does not act before the pandemic subsides, these temporary flexibilities will disappear.

Scott Whitaker, president and CEO of AdvaMed — one of the organisations co-leading this effort in the US medtech industry — said: “Too many patients are still going without care that is absolutely vital to their health, and putting essential medical procedures on hold, due to the pandemic or lack of access to care.

“Making recently expanded telehealth access permanent will improve patients’ ability to get care outside of doctors’ offices and other traditional healthcare settings, and save and improve countless lives.”

Jennifer Covich Bordenick, CEO of Washington-based health IT organisation eHealth Initiative, which has also signed the letter, said: “The pandemic provided us with an opportunity to see the benefits of broad telehealth adoption.

“Virtual care doesn’t just support Covid-19 care – it increases access to communities and consumers for whom traditional office visits don’t always work.

“Hundreds of organisations want Congress to make these changes permanent because they make sense clinically and financially for both providers and patients.”


US telehealth access and remote healthcare

The “Post-Covid Telehealth Priorities Letter to Congress” was sent to congressional leaders on 29 June, signed by 340 healthcare organisations representing all 50 US states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico.

It outlined the necessary steps to give the American federal agency CMS (Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services) authority to continue making telehealth services available across the country — even after the current public health emergency has expired.

The letter, which is addressed to several leaders and speakers in the US Senate, and the House of Representatives, stated telehealth adoption has “soared” since Congress introduced its current, temporary policy changes in response to Covid-19.

It added that these changes have allowed 46% of Americans to replace a cancelled healthcare visit with a telehealth service during the pandemic, with some 76% of US citizens now reporting “strong interest” in using telehealth and accessing care virtually in the future.

The letter said: “Congress not only has the opportunity to finally bring the US healthcare system into the 21st century, but the responsibility to ensure that billions of dollars in Covid-focused investments made during the pandemic are not wasted, and instead used to support the transformation of care delivery and, ultimately, expand access to high-quality virtual care to all Americans.”

It also outlined four specific steps for Congress to follow — the first of which was a request to lift “obsolete” restrictions on the geographical locations patients must adhere to in order to receive healthcare, ensuring people can instead access care at home, or in a setting of their choosing.

us remote healthcare congress
A letter pushing for improved access to telehealth services and remote care was sent to the US Congress on 29 June (Credit: US Government)

These requests also included allowing the CMS and the US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to maintain the authority to add or remove eligible telehealth services through a predictable regulatory process, giving patients and providers transparency and clarity.

It added that Congress should ensure FQHCs (Federally Qualified Health Centers) and RHCs (Rural Health Clinics) can offer virtual services after Covid-19, and work with stakeholders to support fair and appropriate reimbursement for these key safety net providers.

Finally, it requested that Congress enable the CMS and HHS to act quickly during future pandemics and natural disasters — in the same way Congress has allowed the HHS to waive restrictions during the current crisis, under the Social Security Act.

Ann Mond Johnson, CEO of the American Telemedicine Association (ATA) — another signatory of the letter to Congress — said existing statutory barriers must be “immediately addressed” to modernise telehealth under Medicare, and “keep us all from falling off the ‘telehealth cliff’”.

Krista Drobac, executive director of the Alliance for Connected Care, said: “The pandemic has given many seniors their first real experience with telehealth, as clinicians leveraged connected care tools to meet access challenges.

“It’s time for Congress to eliminate outdated statutory barriers to telehealth and give HHS the ability to expand telehealth while remaining a good steward of American tax dollars.”