The pandemic has forced many businesses to get creative in providing services, and that includes the medical field. But after telehealth visits by Medicare recipients increased more than 11,000%, lawmakers are considering making the changes permanent to address what they see as a growing appetite for remote services.
Stacy Bower, office manager at Pediatric Associates of Durango, spoke firsthand to the power of using telehealth in an area like Southwest Colorado. She said patients in Pagosa Springs, Silverton and Cortez had already begun using telehealth services even before the pandemic to make accessing health care more efficient.
“It was a strain for them to have to drive there (to Durango) for a follow-up all the time, especially for that follow-up once or twice a month,” Bower said.
Telehealth initiatives are considered a helpful tool in rural health clinics’ arsenals. The National Rural Health Association argued in a 2019 report that while access to these services can be challenging in areas where there is poor broadband access, offering remote services on the whole can actually reduce the amount of money people spend on their health care as access to specialists and preventive care increases.
The COVID-19 Telehealth Program, administered by the Federal Communications Commission, was initially infused with $200 million for grants nationwide, and was created to complement a loosening of restrictions about how many people could access telehealth services during the pandemic. But the future looks uncertain as federal funding made available at the beginning of the COVID-19 crisis dries up.
The FCC reports that less than a quarter of the money allocated in April is left to be disbursed, and the agency announced Thursday that it would no longer be accepting additional applications to use the money.
In a letter sent to U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Minority Leader Chuck Schumer on June 16, Sen. Cory Gardner, R-Colo., joined a bipartisan group of senators to push to make permanent the rules broadening who could receive telehealth services under Medicare. Gardner also supported making funding for initiatives like the COVID-19 Telehealth Program permanent.
“I strongly support replenishing those dollars to fund telehealth,” Gardner said in an interview Friday with The Durango Herald.
Gardner has supported expansion of telehealth services since before the pandemic. In October, he and fellow Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., were co-sponsors of the CONNECT for Health Act, which guided the CARES Act’s telehealth provisions in March.
“This was important before COVID-19, it was critical during COVID-19, and after this health emergency is over, it needs to be a part of our health system approach,” Gardner said.
In the meantime, some clinics are left in limbo. Axis Health System applied for a grant within an hour and a half of the announcement that the federal government would be funding telehealth services for medical services under the CARES Act. The money would have been valuable for performing initial screening tests for clients at a time when mental health concerns are heightened.
“We wanted to expand some of the capabilities that we have,” said Haley Leonard, public relations director for Axis. “We’re still crossing our fingers that maybe they’ll fund it if there’s money left.”
Jacob Wallace is a graduate student at American University in Washington, D.C., and an intern for The Durango Herald and The Journal.