U.S. Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) today highlighted the heightened value of telehealth during the COVID-19 pandemic across the United States, especially in rural areas like those in his home state of South Dakota, where access to specialty care is more difficult to find. Thune has long been a proponent of telehealth, most recently helping champion provisions in the CARES Act, cosponsoring the CONNECT for Health Act, and authoring the RUSH Act.
Excerpt of Thune’s remarks below:
“Mr. President, one of the things we’ve really seen during the COVID-19 pandemic is the value of telehealth.
“As a resident of a rural state, I’ve long been a proponent of telehealth for the access it gives to rural communities.
“If you live in a major city, you usually don’t have to think too much about where you’ll find a doctor if you need one.
“If you need a cardiologist, for example, you don’t spend a lot of time worrying whether or not you’ll be able to find one within driving distance.
“In fact, there’s a good chance you’ll have a choice of a wide range of cardiologists.
“And if you have a heart attack, you know you’re in reach of at least one hospital – and maybe several.
“But that’s not always the case for Americans in rural areas.
“In the smallest towns in America, access to specialty care can be a challenge.
“The only providers may be a primary care provider, a nurse, or a pharmacist.
“These providers are essential to rural families.
“But sometimes specialty care is needed.
“And when there isn’t a specialist close by, telehealth can help get these rural providers and their patients the medical care they need from a remote location through the use of technology.
“But the coronavirus has highlighted the fact that telehealth is a valuable resource for every American.
“During the pandemic, we’ve seen health care providers of all types turn to telehealth to continue serving their patients without running the risk of spreading the virus.
“Telehealth has allowed patients to access a variety of services that might have been risky to obtain at an office or hospital during the height of the pandemic.
“And telehealth’s usefulness will extend long beyond the coronavirus crisis.
“While telehealth has particular value for rural areas, rural, urban, and suburban areas alike experience provider shortages and a lack of access to care.
“The Association of American Medical Colleges estimates that there will be a shortage of up to 122,000 doctors in the United States by 2032.
“Even in areas without shortages, telehealth can make life easier for patients by reducing the number of times they have to visit a doctor’s office for care.
“While there will always be a need to see a doctor in person, for many patients some office visits could be replaced with telehealth appointments.
“That could make a big difference for individuals whose health requires them to see a doctor frequently.
“It’s also a convenience for patients in the workforce or caring for children or other family members who may need to be able to access services quickly and easily.
“I was very pleased that Congress expanded access to telehealth in the coronavirus relief bills we passed.
“We advanced the principles of value-based insurance design by allowing high-deductible health plans to cover telehealth services prior to a beneficiary’s reaching his or her deductible.
“We also permitted the secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services to waive certain Medicare restrictions on telehealth during the public health emergency, which has been hugely helpful to both seniors and the providers who care for them.
“With this waiver authority, providers can be paid for seeing patients in their homes, regardless of whether the patient lives in a rural area.
“We also expanded the types of services that are reimbursable via telehealth under Medicare.
“In addition to video, providers are able to offer telehealth appointments using audio-only technology, which is helpful for patients who don’t have access to internet or a smart device.
“Congress’ coronavirus legislation also increased telehealth access for community health centers, rural health clinics, home health, hospice, and home dialysis for the duration of the pandemic.
“And I would like to see us make many of these measures permanent.
“I’ll be pushing for that in the Senate over the coming months, along with the CONNECT for Health Act, which I’ve co-sponsored with Senators Schatz, Wicker, Cardin, Warner, and Hyde-Smith for the last several Congresses.
“This legislation, which influenced many of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act telehealth provisions, addresses restrictions that limit the use of telehealth in Medicare, including by providing waiver authority for the secretary of health and human services.
“In addition, the legislation would remove restrictions that affect Medicare reimbursement for the Indian Health Service and facilitate the use of telehealth for emergency medical services and mental health care.
“I will also continue to urge passage of the bill I introduced in March to increase telehealth services in nursing facilities.
“My Reducing Unnecessary Senior Hospitalizations Act – or RUSH Act – would allow Medicare to establish agreements with medical groups to provide care to nursing home patients remotely, with the goal of reducing instances of avoidable trips to the emergency department.
“Access to on-demand support from providers equipped to treat seniors would enable a nursing home’s on-site staff to immediately address a patient’s needs, without waiting for emergency room transport or for a doctor to arrive.
“As a result, patients would be more likely to receive early intervention and avoid hospital visits, which can pose significant risks to the elderly – especially, of course, during the current pandemic.
“Reducing the costs that come from untreated medical complications or expensive emergency room visits would also be a win for taxpayers and the Medicare program.
“One health care provider in my home state of South Dakota conducted a telehealth pilot program to provide specialized care to nursing home patients, and ended up saving Medicare more than $342 per beneficiary per month.
“That’s a significant savings.
“And it’s a savings that came from providing nursing home patients with better and faster care.
“Mr. President, one of the many reasons I’ve pushed so hard to expand access to high-speed internet in rural areas – and ensure that rural communities have access to 5G – is because of the opportunities this provides for the expanded use of telehealth, which translates into greater access to care for rural Americans.
“I will continue to do everything I can to make telehealth more available to under-served patients and rural communities – and to the country as a whole.
“The coronavirus pandemic has highlighted just how valuable a resource telehealth can be for every American.
“And we should ensure that all Americans can access its benefits.”