During the COVID-19 pandemic, hospitals and health systems reimagined care delivery to meet the needs of their patients, particularly as they employed care delivery via telehealth. The results of these efforts speak for themselves. Without this shift to virtual care, more than 200,000 patient visits would not have taken place and 165,000 behavioral health encounters may have been lost in April 2020 alone, according to a recent Vizient report. The analysis of more than 66 million patient visits, across 96,000 providers and 18,000 locations since January 2020 shows that telehealth has become a common method of care, with certain specialties in higher demand.
During a Congressional briefing Vizient hosted, one health system on the west coast described their transformation from less than 1% to greater than 70% of all ambulatory care to a digital medium in two weeks during 2020. Another health system in the Midwest shared their experiences when telemedicine visits increased 800% during 2020.
The support and flexibility for telehealth from federal lawmakers and regulators helped hospitals slow the spread of COVID and ensure continued access to patient care. In addition, the recently released Physician Fee Schedule proposed rule includes several policies to extend access to telehealth services and also implements a section of the Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2021, which eased legislative restrictions (e.g., geographic and originating site requirements) to increase patient access to telehealth for mental health services. Despite these advancements, more changes are needed to ensure that broader access to telehealth services become the norm, and that telehealth is not just viewed as a “back-up plan” during public health emergencies, like COVID.
To do so, our nation’s hospitals need support in the following areas:
Revised legislative and regulatory framework—As hospitals move past the COVID-19 Public Health Emergency, there is a need to maintain several of the flexibilities provided in laws, regulations and licensure requirements, such as geographic and originating site requirements and an expanded list of telehealth services covered by Medicare.
Appropriate reimbursement—Hospitals need greater clarity about the future of telehealth reimbursement as they continue to make strategic telehealth investments to support the patients and communities they serve. Inadequate reimbursement threatens the ability for hospitals to continue providing and enhancing their telehealth services.
Increased access to broadband—Patient and provider access, particularly for rural and underserved communities, is essential to telehealth services. Congress must increase funding to increase access to broadband and support technical aspects of telehealth services.
Focus on increasing patient connection and trust—Trust is central to the patient-physician relationship. As hospitals continue to embrace telehealth and other technologies, establishing strong connections and trust with patients should remain at the forefront of planning efforts.
As health systems continue to innovate and invest in telehealth, policymakers must meet them where they are. Government support, whether it’s permanently easing legislative or regulatory requirements or providing telehealth reimbursement policies to sustain access, will help ensure hospitals can continue to provide these vital health care services, especially for rural and underserved populations.
About the author: As senior vice president of public policy and government relations, Shoshana Krilow leads Vizient government relations, monitoring federal legislative and regulatory developments of importance to Vizient and its members. Prior to joining the company, Shoshana served as director of health and clinical affairs for the University of California, focusing on issues related to health policy and biomedical research for the UC Health system. She has also worked as a strategic advisor to health sector clients with a particular concentration on Medicare, the pharmaceutical and insurance industries, and the Affordable Care Act. Shoshana has deep legislative expertise, having spent several years on Capitol Hill, where she worked as a health policy advisor for members of the House of Representatives and the Senate. Prior to her work on Capitol Hill, she worked as an analyst, investment advisor and regional internal wholesaler for Goldman, Sachs and Co., Smith Barney and J.P. Morgan, respectively.